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What Is a Heath Robinson?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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“Heath Robinson” is a British expression for a very complicated machine, particularly one that needs constant tinkering to keep it running. A similar expression in the United States is “Rube Goldberg device.” Both phrases are named after cartoonists who drew machines that employed complicated processes to achieve simple outcomes. William Heath Robinson was a British artist of the early 20th century who specialized in such drawings. One of the earliest modern computers, a code-breaking machine used during World War II, was named the Heath Robinson in his honor.

Cartooning is a relatively recent art form, at least compared to drama or painting, which have existed for thousands of years. The first true cartoons were created by German artist Rodolphe Töpffer in the early 1800s. The comic strip appeared in American and European newspapers at the end of the 19th century. By the 1920s, hundreds of popular comic strips and cartoons were published in papers around the world. Robinson and Goldberg were among the first cartoonists to achieve name recognition in this new medium.

Robinson, who usually signed his name W. Heath Robinson, began his career as an illustrator of children’s books. In the first decade of the 20th century, he began drawing the unlikely contraptions for which he would be best remembered. Machines were taking on an increasingly important cultural role at the time, and people enjoyed cartoons that pointed out their failings and impracticalities. Robinson’s “Testing Golf Clubs,” for example, portrays a three-story device that uses pulleys, springs, and a gigantic wheel to simulate a golf putt, something a human could do easily. The machine appears to have been repaired many times and is attended by numerous technicians, scientists, and observers.

As early as 1912, British speakers applied the term “Heath Robinson” to any device that was needlessly complicated. As modern technology was then in its very primitive stage, the saying soon found widespread use. American cartoonist Rube Goldberg began his own series of popular cartoon inventions in 1914, probably influenced by Robinson and similar cartoonists. Goldberg’s drawings were so popular that the saying “Rube Goldberg device” became a widespread term for complicated machinery, just as “Heath Robinson” had in England. Both expressions are still in use in the 21st century.

In the 1940s, British scientists created several early computers in an effort to decipher Germany’s coded transmissions. One of the earliest of these machines was dubbed the Heath Robinson because it was highly complex and required constant tending to function properly. The device was soon replaced by more efficient early computers, such as the Colossus. Nevertheless, it was an important stage in the development of modern computer technology.

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