Heath Robinson and Rube Goldberg are two names now used around the world to describe machines, devices or contraptions that perform simple tasks in convoluted and unnecessarily complicated ways. Both Robinson and Goldberg lived at about the same time, although on either sides of the world.
Heath Robinson (1872 – 1944)
Born to a family of artists, William Heath Robinson grew up in the London area known as Stroud Green. His father and his brothers were all illustrators, and his own early career involved illustrating books, among them Tales from Shakespeare, The Water-Babies and The Arabian Nights. He also wrote and illustrated three of his own children’s books, The Adventures of Uncle Lubin, Bill the Minder,which was later made into an animated TV show, and Peter Quip in Search of a Friend.
His work also included doing drawings for political magazines and adverts. These were often humorous, and many featured madcap machines. In 1934, Absurdities was published, a collection of Robinson’s favourite inventions. An example of these was the “Multimovement tabby silencer”, a device for automatically throwing water at and silencing serenading cats.
His machines were typically operated by the “wacky scientist” stereotype, a blabbering, forgetful, bald bespectacled mess of a man with, somehow, a brilliant mind. The machines would often be powered by rickety things like boilers or kettles, as well as candles, complex criss-crossing pulley ropes, and various other unnecessary dynamos and bits found around the house.
Rube Goldberg (1883 – 1970)
Reuben Garrett Lucius Goldberg grew up with his parents Max and Hannah Goldberg in San Francisco, California. As a sculptor, engineer, cartoonist and author, he became known for designing various convoluted machines and contraptions.
Goldberg’s off-beat cartoons were immensely popular, and he served as the resident illustrator for five newspapers throughout his career. Among these were The New York Journal, The New York Evening Journal and the the New York Evening Mail. His work was syndicated from 1915 onwards. His inventions became so well-known that in 1931, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary adopted the word “Rube Goldberg” as an adjective to describe achieving something simple in a complex way.
One of Goldberg’s most famous characters, Professor Butts, is similar to Heath Robinson’s machine operators – a madcap inventor, baffled-looking and shabby haired.
Both cartoonist inventors made politically inclined cartoons, and both of them have left their mark on popular culture. They’ve inspired other artists to create their own variations of complex machines, and were the inspiration for the popular board game “Mousetrap.”
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