From the Heath Robinson Museum:
William Heath Robinson is an artist whose work, whether in his well known humorous drawings or his illustrations for Kipling, Shakespeare or children’s stories, is integral to British cultural heritage. His name entered the language as early as 1912 and is still in daily use to describe the kind of ad hoc contraptions that featured in many of his cartoons.
He was born in Finsbury Park, North London, in May, 1872.
While the museum doesn’t pin down Heath Robinson’s birth date others put it as May 31, 1872.
A Christmas Scandal , 1943
A cartoonist and illustrator his name entered into the English language (OED)
as a synonym for “whimsically elaborate machines to achieve simple objectives.”
In the United Kingdom, they were Heath Robinson contraptions. (In the U.S. similar gizmos came to be known as Rube Goldberg machines.) Seldom does an artist’s style and imagination prove so inventive that existing adjectives prove simply inadequate, so that the artist’s own name is the only suitable description of his work.
Testing artificial teeth in a modern tooth works, 1929
In William Heath Robinson’s case, his name became synonymous with any overly complicated device designed to execute the simplest of tasks, and which no one in his right mind would ever actually consider building or using—but which, for all that, really could work (probably), although only with an unwarranted investment of labour. But such a description, you see, is no less cumbersome than one of these machines itself. So much easier1to just call it what it is—a “Heath Robinson.”
Aerial Life, 1918
In 2016 the William Heath Robinson Museum opened in London.
The Mary Evans Picture Library offers scores of Robinson prints.
art © The William Heath Robinson Trust