Meet Heath Robinson, original AQUILAnaut!

Imagine for a moment that your name became so famous around the world that it actually entered the dictionary as an adjective! What would be the definition, do you think? 

That’s easy. Ed would mean ‘blisteringly intelligent, erudite and hilarious’ Ed

Of all the artists who have ever lived, only a tiny handful have become household names, and even fewer have actually entered the English language. William Heath Robinson (1872-1944) earned his living as an artist and illustrator. His unique talent for drawing humorous contraptions led to his surname entering English dictionaries in 1912, as an adjective. A Heath Robinson is a machine that is ‘ingeniously or ridiculously over-complicated in design or construction’

When Heath Robinson chose art as a career it must have come as no surprise. Both his brothers were accomplished painters and so was his father and grandfather before him. William studied at the Islington School or Art and the Painting School of the Royal Academy. At the age of 25, he realised that selling one landscape painting a year would not be profitable, but he could make a good living from the type of drawings and illustrations that were being published in the rapidly growing publishing industry. He went on to illustrate the Danish fairy tales and legends of Hans Christian Andersen, The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan, Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes and Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. Heath Robinson’s first funny drawings appeared in magazines like The Tatler, The Bystander and The Sketch.

Everyday Life

Heath Robinson was fascinated by the business of everyday life, from playing golf or gardening, to living in a flat or travelling by aeroplane. Most of his large, humorous paintings involve a panoramic view of a complicated device of his own invention. Many of Heath Robinson’s drawings have been published in collections – the best known are Absurdities, Heath Robsinson at War, and Inventions. His talent was so widely admired that one of the machines built at Bletchley Park during World War II was named Heath Robinson in his honour! His work also inspired the legendary sci-fi writer H.G. Wells, who said, in a letter from 1914: 

‘Your absurd, beautiful drawings… give me a peculiar pleasure of the mind like nothing else in the world.’

Heath Robinson’s incredible drawings also helped to inspire the animator Nick Park in the creation of two more national treasures; Wallace & Gromit!

Swimming the channel

Want to really appreciate what all the fuss is about? This activity should give you a sense for the true awesomeness of Heath Robinson’s imagination: 

Mission: Look carefully at this poster. Discuss what is shown with a friend and use the information collected for a piece of descriptive writing. Start a new sentence to answer each question. 

Photo (c) The Heath Robinson Museum. Thanks to Geoffrey C. Beare and The Heath Robinson Museum
  • What is the main purpose of the machine?
  • How does it work and what powers it forward?
  • How is the swimmer supported in the water?
  • List the items on the balloon itself and explain why they are necessary.
  • List the items hanging from the balloon and explain why they are needed.
  • Do you think this device could ever really work? What might cause problems? Which parts do you think would be most impractical?
  • How do you know the swimmer is reaching the end of the cross-Channel swim?
  • What tells you the spectators on the cliff are getting rather excited?
  • Would this swim be allowed as a genuine cross-Channel attempt? Would it be true to say that the swimmer has made the attempt entirely unaided?
  • Imagine you are a newspaper reporter sent to interview the man when he finishes his swim. Make a list of the questions you would ask him. Write up his ‘story’ in newspaper feature style giving readers as much detail as possible.

Want know MORE about the world’s great artists and makers? Looking for some fun and educational activities to inspire and educate? Want to join a club full of creative, funny, curious kids? Then AQUILA Magazine is for you. Click here to subscribe today! You won’t be disappointed.

Words: John Davis