William Heath Robinson was an illustrator whose name is forever associated with the needlessly complicated and ramshackle machines that he liked to draw. Born in 1872, he worked as a book illustrator for years before he became known for his cartoons, which typically show befuddled humans interacting with modern life and technologies. These technologies, however, resembled nothing that anyone had ever imagined before. His “Pea Conveyance” carried single peas by conveyor belt, one at a time, to the eater’s mouth, while “The Multi-Movement Tabby Silencer,” designed to fling water on yowling cats, required a coordinated effort from two people moving the levers and pulleys from separate bedroom windows.
Heath Robinson’s illustrations often feature belaboured home-makers in need of a break (such as the woman making biscuits from the comfort of her sofa in his book How to Run a Communal Home), but his machines are the opposite of labour-saving devices. More often, half a dozen men stand around to help with a task such as “drilling the holes in waistcoat buttons” or “testing clotheslines.” The humour in his depictions of Second World War rationing comes from the contrast between excess and scarcity, such as when an elaborate machine and three dedicated labourers are needed to extract anchovy sauce from one miserly fish. “Slick” and “modern” are not adjectives that could describe these machines, dented and held together with knotted string —or, in the case of a rather alarming illustration that purports to advertise the cement kilns of G & T Earle in Yorkshire, on the brink of an explosive leak.
As well as cement, Heath Robinson drew advertisements for products as diverse as Hovis Bread, Peek Frean biscuits, and Johnny Walker whiskey, using a self-deprecating style more charming than any puffed-up claims of quality could have been. Indeed, the tone of all his work skewers pretension, lifting the veil from shams and illusion of every kind. It includes a series of cartoons from the 1910s on film-making (then a new technology) in which a war documentary is produced using plywood ships and a fighter plane teetering atop a step-stool. Thirty years later, during the Second World War, he mined the same vein of deception for the cunning ruses that civilians could use to foil a potential German invasion. Typical drawings included “Deceiving the enemy as to the state of the tide,” in which duplicitous sea-bathers on stilts cause the soldiers in enemy landing boats to think it safe to disembark, only to sink in fifteen feet of water, and “Upsetting the enemy’s range-finding by confusing his sense of distance,” in which civilians create a false sense of perspective by using a tiny model village made of toy buildings and trains.
War certainly wasn’t the only subject matter for Heath Robinson’s drawings: their breadth encompassed industrialisation, urban life, leisure activities, and caravan culture. However, the great armed conflicts of the twentieth century did, in some sense, bookend his cartoonist career and cast their shadow over it. Many of the technologies that came in for mockery were military ones like airplanes and tanks. He poked fun at the increasing —and increasingly frightening— mechanisation of warfare, with its potential for mass death. By doing so, he extracted some of the terror; after all, machines in Heath Robinson’s universe are always about to fall to pieces, subject to the foibles of their users (and misusers). A good example is his series showing nonstandard improvements to tanks, including using them for piano concerts and bathtubs. His schemes for repelling a German invasion, of which people were genuinely frightened, work the same transformation through their humorous treatment. Through his drawings, the apparently intractable horror of war yields to gentle absurdity.
Out of all his books, I find How to Build A New World, published in 1941, incredibly moving, especially given that Heath Robinson would actually die in September 1944 before the war ended, and would never see the future that he had imagined. Hearkening back to the Biblical admonition to “beat swords into ploughshares,” the book shows weaponry re-purposed for everyday uses, barrage balloons used as bathing toys. The aftermath of war is also visible in some poorly-planned repair efforts, with chimney pots and steeples knocked down by the Blitz reattached to the wrong buildings. Heath Robinson’s New World isn’t new and shiny, but lovingly pieced together from the broken pieces of the old. But that doesn’t limit his vision of a post-war era of burgeoning self-improvement. His drawings show sports and exercise fads, public speaking, art, and ludicrously exaggerated good manners, exemplified by “The Automatic Hat-Raiser for Popular People” and “A Kind-Hearted Lady Taking a Taxi-Driver for a Ride at Her Own Expense.” While these acts of politeness often seem to create as much bother for the recipient as for the giver, they are nevertheless an essential part of Heath Robinson’s inefficient utopia.
Heath Robinson’s contraptions were a response to the decades in which they were created, fraught with hardship and social change, but they provide food for thought in our twenty-first century, when the illusions perpetrated by modern technology appear glossier and altogether more disturbing. If you have a sceptical nature, you may find that Heath Robinson’s overly-complex technological solutions to problems that aren’t really problems remind you of the tech companies of today, with their hucksterish desperation to persuade us that we need their products.
However, to attribute acerbic commentary to these images would be to read sentiments into them that weren’t originally present. Heath Robinson was disinterested in rapacious capitalists —the people in his drawings are all enthusiastic amateurs or, at worst, puffed-up bureaucrats with a mania for testing everything from golf drivers to umbrellas and steam engines. No one in his universe could possibly be making a profit. His art soars into flights of fancy, true, but it aims less to change the world than to celebrate it as it is, with all its awkwardness and imperfections. It’s this warmth and optimism that made these cartoons beloved through some of the most violent upheavals of the former century.
Readers in search of Heath Robinson machines can look for collections of his work at their local library or, if they don’t mind seeing them in rather appropriate higgledy-piggledy order, they can visit the website of the Heath Robinson Museum, which has uploaded hundreds of his drawings for online viewing. In an uncertain world, the ability of these images to provoke wonder and laughter is as fresh as ever.--Mary Thaler