W. Heath Robinson
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|W. Heath Robinson|
|Born||31 May 1872|
|Died||13 September 1944 (aged 72)|
|Known for||Drawings of odd contraptions|
In the UK, the term "Heath Robinson" entered the 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 U.S. from the 1930s 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 Second World War Britain's shortages and the need to "make do and mend".
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 and brothers (Thomas Heath Robinson and Charles Robinson) 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) 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 his work Heath 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.
- "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 an American cartoonist 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 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. Heath Robinson moved to Pinner, Middlesex, in 1908. His house in Moss Lane is commemorated by a blue plaque. West House, in Memorial Park, Pinner, has been restored to house a Heath Robinson Collection, with an extension to the house planned.
In popular culture
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. The epithet "Heath Robinson" was used in the BBC's Planet Earth documentary series, which used 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 – described by David Attenborough as "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. It was also used in a 2009 BBC Horizon programme ( "Why Can't We Predict Earthquakes") to describe a fault-slip measuring device. And more recently an episode of the BBC's long-running astronomy programme The Sky at Night used it to brand a box-like device used for observing colour fractions of the Sun's light.
During the Falklands War (1982), British Harrier aircraft lacked their conventional "chaff"-dispensing mechanism. 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".
The episode "Japan's Last Secret Weapon" of the BBC series "Secrets of World War II" describes the balloons launched from Japan against the US West Coast as "a veritable Heath Robinson weapon of war".
In the third volume of Market Risk Analysis, Carol Alexander uses the term "Heath Robinson approach" to describe the ad hoc approaches to modelling volatility by option-pricing practitioners.
- 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, 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, 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,
- 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,
- Norman Hunter (author)
- Professor Branestawm
- Rube Goldberg, American artist with similar cartoon inventions
- Storm P., Danish artist with similar cartoon inventions
- Jury rig
- The Works of Mr. Francis Rabelais published by Grant Richards, London, 1904. Reprinted by The Navarre Society, London, 1921
- The Heath Robinson Connection at www.brinsmead.net
- "The William Heath Robinson Trust Website – Homepage". Heathrobinson.org. Retrieved 2013-06-15.
- World Wide Words: Heath Robinson
- Sharkey Ward. Sea Harrier Over the Falklands (Cassell Military Paperbacks). Sterling*+ Publishing Company. p. 245. ISBN 0-304-35542-9.
- Morgan, David L. Hostile Skies: My Falklands Air War. London: Orion Publishing. pp. 59, 73 and photo section. ISBN 0-297-84645-0.
- Historic Figures at the BBC web site. Accessed May 2007
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