William Heath Robinson was born into an artistic family in Stroud Green, North London, in 1872. His father, uncle and grandfather were illustrators and engravers of wooden block (which was the standard medium of graphical printing in those days). He had an imaginative and artistic mind, and set out to train as an artist like his two older brothers, Charles and Thomas. He studied at the Islington School of Art and at the Royal Academy of Painting.
He would have liked to become a painter of fine art, specialising in landscapes, but realised very soon that he had to earn enough to make a living and there were better ways of doing so. He turned to illustration and began to make his mark. In 1897, he produced illustrations for four books, including Don Quixote. The Spanish knight must have held some fascination for him as he illustrated two more editions of the story in 1902 and prepared some other drawings which were used in 1953 a few years after his death.
In 1902, he wrote and illustrated a children's book, The Adventures of Uncle Lubin, which impressed his publisher who awarded him a contract to illustrate Rabelais. This was well received and gained Heath Robinson much acclaim. It seemed that his future was secure. His reputation may have been, but the publisher went bankrupt and Heath Robinson did not get paid.
Illustration saved the day. He started working for weekly magazines and began to get a reputation for humorous artwork. His big break came with the advent of the gift book. This was a book, usually a classic, which was illustrated with colour plates, printed using a process which reproduced a faithful rendering of colour and line. Heath Robinson started illustrating gift books1 in 1908. In the illustrations Heath Robinson expressed some reminders of his classical training, but there was always an element of fancy. He still drew for the weeklies and was beginning to develop the style and subject for which he is best remembered.
He was the master of the machine and inventor, poking fun at anything mechanical. By 1912, the term 'Heath Robinson' had become a dictionary entry for improvised machinery2. These mechanical creations were largely man-powered and had lots of poorly-made wheels, cogs and frames, operated with knotted string and, strangely, still adhered to the laws of physics. What made them humorous was the fact that they looked as though they should have worked. In addition to the design and appearance of the machinery, humour lay in the purpose of these complicated contraptions, such as How to Go to Bed Without Disturbing the Household After a Late Night. In 1933, Heath Robinson illustrated The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm, by Norman Hunter, who tells the story of the ultimate potty professor.
His humour could neutralise the most frightening experiences. During both World Wars, he produced his drawings to lift the morale of the people. Items such as Washing Day on a Zeppelin and The Stirrup Pump Relay System of Signalling for Giving Warning of an Invasion took the seriousness and terror out of dangerous or worrying situations. Between the wars he poked fun at society: golfers in particular seemed to attract his attention. Any new invention or new use of an old one that appeared were equally targeted. Despite the obvious humour, there is also a more kindly, even sympathetic, human aspect to these drawings. They were drawings of fancy rather than fantasy as they all gave the impression of possibility.
He became famous for these observations and they were published in collections. However, even though Heath Robinson acknowledged the recognition of these little essays in humorous invention, he would have liked to have been recognised for his fine art and coloured illustration. He died in 1944 after an exploratory prostrate operation. He hated the idea of another operation and removed the catheters left in place. He died a few hours later. Did he see himself as one of the diabolical machines of his own imagination?
His reputation is still high among those who love machines and the idea of the mad inventor. The theme has been carried on by others, but they will never quite equal the old master. A suitable epitaph comes from Heath Robinson himself:
I really have a secret satisfaction in being considered rather mad.