Heath Robinson

Biographical information

TypeCompeted in Olympic Games
Full nameWilliam Heath•Robinson
Used nameHeath•Robinson
Born31 May 1872 in Stroud Green, Greater London, England (GBR)
Died13 September 1944 in Highgate, Greater London, England (GBR)
NOC Great Britain


Heath Robinson entered three of his works in the 1932 Olympic Art competition and the titles of them highlight the eccentricity of his style; when you look at one of his entries, Machines for Clearing Out Holes in Golf Courses, you get some idea of what he created most of the time. It was a drawing of a magnificent and ornate, yet fairly useless, machine for cleaning out holes in golf courses. Many of his works were along these lines hence, when you hear the expression “It is Heath Robinson”, it is a phrase meaning: “An absurdly ingenious and impracticable device” and the expression entered the English language in 1912. Robinson must be one of the few, if not only, Olympians to have an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary named after them.

Robinson was born into a family of artists, as he and his brothers Charles and Thomas followed in the footsteps of their father Thomas, Sr., who was a writer, artist and chief illustrator for the Penny Illustrated Paper, and they had an uncle who worked on the “Illustrated London News”. Another of Robinson’s brothers, George, was a publisher’s manager. Robinson studied at the Islington Art College and then the Royal Academy. He had wanted to be a landscape artist but his career started as a book illustrator and his early works included Don Quixote, 1001 Nights and Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales. He then obtained commissions working for the magazines Tatler and The Sketch, which eventually took him into drawing cartoons of weird contraptions. One of the many contraptions he drew was a camera to enable a person to take a photograph of themselves. And who said the “selfie” was a modern-day thing? Despite his elaborate designs, Robinson was not an engineer and it is doubtful that any of his creations would actually have worked. His work was not entirely restricted to the drawing of weird and wonderful contraptions. He made scenery for the Alhambra and Empire theatres in London and provided murals for the Knickerbocker Bar and the children’s room on the cruise liner the Empress of Britain.

Robinson had four sons and a daughter. Three of his sons, Quentin, Oliver and Tom, all served in the Army in the second World War, while his daughter Joan was a nurse. His fourth son Alan was a monk. Plans for a Heath Robinson Museum at Pinner, London, were announced in June 2014.

The “Ice Hole” Clam Spearer in the Frozen North appeared in 1928 as part of a series in the Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News titled Very Patent Aides to Sport. In 1934 the drawing was also included in the book Absurdities - a Book of Collected Drawings in the format 20 x 28 cm. Machines for Clearing Out Holes in Golf Courses was the first in the series Very Patent Aides to Sport with the full caption ”Screw-Em-Out” golf hole cleaner in action on a golf course. The complete title of the last drawing reads Carrying out the correspondence course for mountain climbing in the home (in the catalog: Learning Mountain Climbing in the Home), published in The Sportsman in 1928. The drawing (pen and ink with watercolor) measures 45 x 35 cm.


Games Discipline (Sport) / Event NOC / Team Pos Medal As
1932 Summer Olympics Art Competitions GBR Heath Robinson
Painting, Drawings And Water Colors, Open (Olympic) AC
Painting, Drawings And Water Colors, Open (Olympic) AC
Painting, Drawings And Water Colors, Open (Olympic) AC