W. Heath Robinson

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W. Heath Robinson
W Heath Robinson.jpg
Born(1872-05-13)May 13, 1872
Islington, England
DiedSeptember 13, 1944(1944-09-13) (aged 72)
London, England
OccupationIllustrator, Cartoonist and Artist.
Known forDrawings of odd contraptions

William Heath Robinson (31 May 1872 – 13 September 1944) was an English cartoonist, illustrator and artist, best known for drawings of whimsically elaborate machines to achieve simple objectives.[1]

In the UK, the term "Heath Robinson" entered the popular language during the 1914–1918 First World War as a description of any unnecessarily complex and implausible contrivance, much as "Rube Goldberg machines" came to be used in the United States from the 1920s onwards as a term for similar efforts. "Heath Robinson contraption" is perhaps more often used in relation to temporary fixes using ingenuity and whatever is to hand, often string and tape, or unlikely cannibalisations. Its continuing popularity was undoubtedly linked to Britain's shortages and the need to "make do and mend" during the Second World War.

Early life[edit]

An illustration from The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902)

William Heath Robinson was born at 25 Ennis Road on 31 May 1872 into a family of artists in an area of London known as Stroud Green, Finsbury Park, North London. His father Thomas Robinson (1838–1902) and brothers Thomas Heath Robinson (1869–1954) and Charles Robinson (1870–1937) all worked as illustrators.


His early career involved illustrating books – among others: Hans Christian Andersen's Danish Fairy Tales and Legends (1897), The Arabian Nights (1899), Tales from Shakespeare (1902), Gargantua and Pantagruel (1904),[2] Twelfth Night (1908), Andersen's Fairy Tales (1913), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1914), Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies (1915) and Walter de la Mare's Peacock Pie (1916).

In the course of his work, Robinson also wrote and illustrated three children's books, The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902), Bill the Minder (1912) and Peter Quip in Search of a Friend (1922). Uncle Lubin is regarded as the start of his career in the depiction of unlikely machines.

During the First World War, he drew large numbers of cartoons, depicting ever-more-unlikely secret weapons being used by the combatants. He also depicted the American Expeditionary Force in France.[3]

He also produced a steady stream of humorous drawings for magazines and advertisements. In 1934 he published a collection of his favourites as Absurdities, such as:

  • "The Wart Chair. A simple apparatus for removing a wart from the top of the head"
  • "Resuscitating stale railway scones for redistribution at the station buffets"
  • "The multimovement tabby silencer", which automatically threw water at serenading cats

Most of his cartoons have since been reprinted many times in multiple collections.

The machines he drew were frequently powered by steam boilers or kettles, heated by candles or a spirit lamp and usually kept running by balding, bespectacled men in overalls. There would be complex pulley arrangements, threaded by lengths of knotted string. Robinson's cartoons were so popular that in Britain the term "Heath Robinson" is used to refer to an improbable, rickety machine barely kept going by incessant tinkering. (The corresponding term in the U.S. is Rube Goldberg, after the American cartoonist born just over a decade later, with an equal devotion to odd machinery. Similar "inventions" have been drawn by cartoonists in many countries, with the Danish Storm Petersen being on par with Robinson and Goldberg.)

One of his most famous series of illustrations was that which accompanied the first Professor Branestawm book written by Norman Hunter. The stories told of the eponymous professor who was brilliant, eccentric and forgetful and provided a perfect backdrop for Robinson's drawings.

The last project Robinson worked on shortly before he died was illustrations for Lilian M. Clopet's short story collection Once Upon a Time, which was published in 1944.[4]

One of the automatic analysis machines built for Bletchley Park during the Second World War to assist in the decryption of German message traffic was named "Heath Robinson" in his honour. It was a direct predecessor to the Colossus, the world's first programmable digital electronic computer.

Personal life[edit]

In 1903 he married Josephine Latey, the daughter of newspaper editor John Latey.[5] Heath Robinson moved to Pinner, Middlesex, in 1908. His house in Moss Lane is commemorated by a blue plaque.[6]

Death and legacy[edit]

He died in September 1944 during the Second World War and is buried in East Finchley Cemetery.

The Heath Robinson Museum opened in October 2016 to house a collection of nearly 1,000 original artworks owned by The William Heath Robinson Trust. The museum is in Memorial Park, Pinner, close to where the artist lived and worked. A nearby branch[7] of the PizzaExpress restaurants features designs inspired by the artist's work.

In popular culture[edit]

A World War I cartoon by W. Heath Robinson

The name "Heath Robinson" became part of common parlance in the UK for complex inventions that achieved absurdly simple results following its use as services slang during the 1914–1918 First World War.[8]

In the Wallace and Gromit films, Wallace often invents Heath Robinson-like machines, with some inventions being direct references.[9]

During the Falklands War (1982), British Harrier aircraft lacked their conventional "chaff"-dispensing mechanism.[10] Therefore, Royal Navy engineers designed an impromptu delivery system of welding rods, split pins and string which allowed six packets of chaff to be stored in the speedbrake well and deployed in flight. Due to its improvised and ramshackle nature it was often referred to as the "Heath Robinson chaff modification".[11]


  • Robinson, W. Heath, Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Poe. 1900
  • Robinson, W. Heath, Adventures of Don Quixote, Cervantes. 1902
  • Robinson, W. Heath, Some "Frightful" War Pictures, Duckworth. 1915
  • Robinson, W. Heath, Hunlikely!, Duckworth. 1916
  • Robinson, W. Heath, The Saintly Hun: a book of German virtues, Duckworth. 1917
  • Robinson, W. Heath, Flypapers, Duckworth. 1919
  • Robinson, W. Heath, The Rabelais, Rabelais. [Private Printing] 1921
  • Robinson, W. Heath, Humours of Golf, Methuen. 1923, [Duckworth. 1973, ISBN 978-0-7156-0915-6]
  • Robinson, W. Heath, Railway Ribaldry, Duckworth. 1935, [Duckworth. 1997, ISBN 978-0-7156-0823-4]
  • Robinson, W. Heath, Absurdities: A Book of Collected Drawings, Hutchinson. 1934, [Duckworth. 1975, ISBN 978-0-7156-0920-0]
  • Robinson, W. Heath, How to Live in Flat, Hutchinson. 1936, [Duckworth. 1976]
  • Robinson, W. Heath, My Line of Life, Blackie & Sons. 1938
  • Robinson, W. Heath, Let's Laugh: A Book of Humorous Inventions, Hutchinson. 1939
  • Robinson, W. Heath, Heath Robinson at War, Methuen. 1942
  • Clopet, Lilian M., illustrated by W. Heath Robinson, Once Upon a Time. 1944
  • Lewis, John. Heath Robinson Artist and Comic Genius, Barnes and Noble. 1973
  • Robinson, W. Heath, Inventions, Duckworth. 1973, ISBN 978-0-7156-0724-4
  • De Freitas, Leo John, The Fantastic Paintings of Charles and William Heath Robinson, Peacock/Bantam. 1976
  • Robinson, W. Heath, Devices, Duckworth. 1977, ISBN 978-0-7156-1268-2
  • Beare, Geoffrey. The Illustrations of W. Heath Robinson, Werner Shaw. 1983
  • Beare, Geoffrey. W. Heath Robinson, Chris Beetles. 1987
  • Hamilton, James, William °Heath Robinson, Pavilion. 1992
  • Beare, Geoffrey, The Brothers Robinson, Chris Beetles. 1992
  • Beare, Geoffrey, The Art of William Heath Robinson, Dulwich Picture Gallery. 2003
  • Robinson, W. Heath, Contraptions, Duckworth. 2007
  • Robinson, W. Heath, Britain at Play, Duckworth. 2008
  • Beare, Geoffrey, Heath Robinson's Commercial Art, Lund Humphries, 2017

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bryant, Mark. World War I in Cartoons. London: Grub Street Pub, 2006, page 17, ISBN 190494356X
  2. ^ The Works of Mr. Francis Rabelais published by Grant Richards, London, 1904. Reprinted by The Navarre Society, London, 1921
  3. ^ Bryant, Mark. World War I in Cartoons. London: Grub Street Pub, 2006, pages 9 and 17, ISBN 190494356X
  4. ^ https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/22713/lot/165/
  5. ^ The Heath Robinson Connection at www.brinsmead.net
  6. ^ "W. Heath Robinson blue plaque at 75 Moss Lane, Pinner, London". Retrieved 9 January 2017.
  7. ^ "Harrow St George's". PizzaExpress. Retrieved 9 January 2017.
  8. ^ World Wide Words: Heath Robinson
  9. ^ Solon, Olivia. "William Heath Robinson museum finally opens this weekend. Who is the man behind the legend?". Wired. Retrieved 20 May 2017. In fact, the parallels between Aardman's "cracking contraptions" and Heath Robinson's are, on occasions, startling. The Wallace-Gromit household borrows heavily from a full-scale model of a contraption-filled house entitled "The Gadget Family", designed and built for the Ideal Home Show in 1934 -- there are even trapdoors delivering the family to the breakfast table.
  10. ^ Sharkey Ward. Sea Harrier Over the Falklands (Cassell Military Paperbacks). Sterling*+ Publishing Company. p. 245. ISBN 0-304-35542-9.
  11. ^ Morgan, David L. Hostile Skies: My Falklands Air War. London: Orion Publishing. pp. 59, 73 and photo section. ISBN 0-297-84645-0.

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