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W. Heath Robinson
Born 31 May 1872 (1872-05-31)
Died 13 September 1944 (1944-09-14)
Nationality British
Occupation Cartoonist
Known for Drawings of odd contraptions
Collection of W. Heath Robinson's "Railway Ribaldry", originally published at the request of the Great Western Railway which was celebrating its centenary in 1935.

William Heath Robinson (31 May 1872 – 13 September 1944) was an English cartoonist and illustrator, who signed himself W. Heath Robinson. He is best known for drawings of eccentric machines and "Heath Robinson" has entered the language as a description of any unnecessarily complex and implausible contraption.



William Heath Robinson was born into a family of artists in Islington, London. His father and brothers Thomas Heath Robinson and Charles Robinson were all illustrators. His early career was as a book illustrator, for example in Hans Christian Andersen's Danish Fairy Tales and Legends (1897); The Arabian Nights, (1899); Tales From Shakespeare (1902), and 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 this however he also wrote and illustrated two children's books, The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902) and Bill the Minder (1912); these are regarded as the start of his career in the depiction of unlikely machines. During the First World War he drew large numbers of cartoons, collected as Some "Frightful" War Pictures (1915), Hunlikely! (1916), and Flypapers (1919), depicting ever-more-unlikely secret weapons being used by the combatants.

Besides these he 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 usually kept running by balding, bespectacled men in overalls. The machines were frequently powered by steam boilers or kettles, heated by candles or a spirit lamp; often there would be complex pulley arrangements, threaded by lengths of knotted string. Robinson's cartoons were so popular that even to this day in Britain the name "Heath Robinson" is used as shorthand for an improbable, rickety machine barely kept going by incessant tinkering. (The corresponding term in the U.S. is Rube Goldberg, after an American cartoonist with an equal devotion to odd machinery.)

One of his most famous series of illustrations was that which accompanied the Professor Branestawm books 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.

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.

In 1903 he married Josephine Latey, the daughter of newspaper editor John Latey.[1] Heath Robinson moved to Pinner, Middlesex, in 1908. His house in Moss Lane is commemorated by a blue plaque. A project is now (2007) in hand to restore West House, in Memorial Park, Pinner, to house a Heath Robinson Collection. More information is available at The West House & Heath Robinson Museum Trust

In popular culture

A World War I cartoon by W. Heath Robinson

His name became part of common parlance in the UK for complex inventions that achieved absurdly simple results from about the time of the First World War.[2] Though less common today, the epithet "Heath Robinson" was used in the BBC's Planet Earth documentary series, in which devices used to create smooth camera movements, such as the effective steadicam made out of bicycle wheels and rope used to sail up a 100 metre high mound of bat droppings, were said by David Attenborough to be "Heath Robinson affairs". It has also been used by Jeremy Clarkson in his programme Speed (Episode 5 — Superhuman Speed) when describing the piping in a space-rocket's engine. And more recently it was in an episode of the BBC's long-running astronomy programme The Sky at Night to refer to a box-like device used for observing colour fractions of the Sun's light.

In Pink Floyd's 1971 concert film Live at Pompeii, Nick Mason described the band's early on-stage musical experiments as "Heath Robinson".

During the Falklands War British Harrier aircraft lacked their conventional "chaff" dispensing mechanism.[3] 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 airbrake well and deployed in flight. Due to its complexity it was often referred to as the "Heath Robinson chaff modification".[4]

David Langford's farce novel The Leaky Establishment is set at a nuclear research facility on "Robinson Heath".


  • Robinson, W. Heath, Railway Ribaldry, Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd., England, Originally published 1935. ISBN 0-7156-0823-1
  • Robinson, W. Heath, My Line of Life, Blackie & Sons. 1938,
  • Robinson, W. Heath, Heath Robinson at War, London, Methuen. 1942,
  • Lewis, John. Heath Robinson Artist and Comic Genius, Barnes and Noble. 1973,
  • De Freitas, Leo John, The Fantastic Paintings of Charles and William Heath Robinson, Peacock/Bantam. 1976,
  • 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,

See also


  1. ^ The Heath Robinson Connection at
  2. ^ World Wide Words: Heath Robinson
  3. ^ Sharkey Ward. Sea Harrier Over the Falklands (Cassell Military Paperbacks). Sterling*+ Publishing Company. p. 245. ISBN 0-304-35542-9. 
  4. ^ Morgan, David L.. Hostile Skies: My Falklands Air War. London: Orion Publishing. pp. 59, 73 and photo section. ISBN 0-297-84645-0. 

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary




From the drawings by William Heath Robinson


Heath Robinson

  1. Used in an attributive manner to describe anything ingenious but absurdly impractical

See also

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