Heath Robinson, Rube Goldberg, Storm P - The Art of the Funny Machine Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Heath Robinson, Rube Goldberg, Storm P - The Art of the Funny Machine

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A Heath Robinson cartoon courtesy US Library of Congress.

Quick: what do you call it when somebody invents an elaborate process to do something simple? Say the mechanism is more complicated than it needs to be. Say the old equipment is held together with spit and bailing-wire. Say someone - the government, to take a wildly improbable example - is using complicated and unnecessary bureaucracy to accomplish a straightforward task. Do you call it:

  • A 'Heath Robinson'?
  • A 'Rube Goldberg device'?
  • Something out of Storm Petersen?

That would depend on whether your cultural baggage owes most to the UK, the US, or Denmark. Who were these guys, and why were they in your newspaper, drawing surreal machinery? What was it about the early 20th Century and steampunk humour, anyway?

Heath Robinson

William Heath Robinson (1872-1944) was the UK's eponymous inventor of gear-infested nonsense.

A thumbnail sketch of this barmy genius:

Robinson's elaborate 'weapons' relieved tension by exploiting the absurdity of war. His inventions became a byword that led, finally, into the world of computing. His greatest legacy? During World War II, the Bletchley Park cryptographers named a codebreaking machine 'Heath Robinson'. That machine was the direct ancestor of the first programmable digital electronic computer.

Draw it, and it might turn into the internet.

Rube Goldberg

Reuben Garrett Lucius Goldberg (1883-1970) was another madcap son of da Vinci.

His bonafides:

  • Born: San Francisco.
  • Political cartoonist, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948.
  • Specialty: drawing complex machines that performed simple tasks. Cartoons like this.

Goldberg had a sharp wit and a sense of the absurd. His legacy was in inspired artists and loony tinkerers: The Reuben Award is given to gifted cartoonists, and engineering students everywhere are drawn irresistibly to Rube Goldberg machine contests.

Draw it, and some fool will build it.

Storm P

Robert Storm Petersen (1882-1949) was the Danish answer to 'how ridiculous can you get?'

The lowdown in brief:

  • Born: Copenhagen.
  • Freelance painter, illustrator, cartoonist.
  • Essentially cheerful and non-controversial. Some say, bourgeois, but they mean it nicely.

Storm Petersen's purpose seems to be simply to make people laugh. His greatest legacy? The production of Denmark's first animated cartoon, Tre små mænd (Three Little Men), 1920. You can view some of his work at the Museum website.

Draw it, and they will laugh and name something after you.

The Moral

There is no moral. There is only an observation: human beings make things unnecessarily complicated. They have always done this - and they probably always will. There will probably always be someone there to laugh at them, too, at least as long as humans can pick up pencils.

For Lagniappe1

Enjoy some Heath Robinson art by viewing Bill the Minder on Gutenberg.

Watch this film with Rube Goldberg, which shows the cartoonist explaining that ultimate Rube Goldberg device, the internal combustion engine. (The first part's fun, the second part is propaganda for the petroleum industry.)

Watch Storm P animate his 'små mænd'.

1'For lagniappe' is a New Orleans expression meaning 'something extra'.

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