In recent years Wallace and Gromit, a British stop motion clay animation comedy series created by Nick Park, have been described as an international cultural icon of British culture and British people in general. BBC News called them ‘some of the best-known and best-loved stars to come out of the UK’. Others have said that they have done more to improve the image of the English world-wide than any officially appointed ambassadors.
If you have ever watched Wallace and Gromit you will see scenes with ridiculously complicated or elaborate contrivances. I always remember the scene when Wallace wakes up in bed and is subjected to several mechanical machine routines including getting dressed before exiting through the bedroom floor to be deposited at the dining table ready to eat breakfast.
At the beginning of the twentieth century early domestic gadgets were often ridiculously complicated. The original vacuum cleaner invented in 1901 was a steam powered machine the size of a cart and pulled by two horses. If you requested this machine it would arrive outside your house and pipes were placed through windows. As you can imagine this was quite an event attracting a crowd of onlookers and the lady of the house would often invite friends round for tea to observe this machine in action.
At the time there was a very talented man named William Heath Robinson who earned a living by drawing illustrations for the Penny Illustrated Paper. He had attended art school and had tried to be a landscape painter, but this did not work out as expected. By the time he was 24 he was working for the Daily News where he produced drawings showing elaborate gadgets and machines that were ridiculously complicated.
His work caught the attention of some factory owners who invited him to visit their factories and draw what he found. This led to a series of illustrations and included several fantastical scenes including ‘The Pea-splitting Shed of a Soup Factory’.
His fame soon spread worldwide, and he received commission from as far away as Canada. In 1930 he was asked by the Pacific Steamship Company to decorate the Knickerbocker Bar on their new ship the RMS Empress of Britain.
Many of his drawings were focused on flat dwellers and how they could maximise the space in the flat by using ropes and pullies that were part of machines that were designed to replace domestic staff. Most middle-class families could not afford servants and his drawings opened a world of contraptions to replace people.
He died in 1944 but his legacy lives on and apart from Nick Park, creator of Wallace and Gromit, J K Rowling contemplated devising a Heath Robinson type of machine while dreaming up the Sorting Hat at Hogwarts.
His enduring popularity is down to his unique ability to inject humour and humanity into his drawings in a machine age world where cold efficiency rules. His world of eccentricity where there are no limits with madcap solutions provided to solve serious engineering problems.
Thankfully in life there are Heath Robinson characters who can bring fun and laughter into our lives whilst also inspiring others such as Nick Park to create Wallace and Gromit.
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org