During the War a fearsomely inventive mind was beavering away to develop novel machines and weapons to solve very “specific” problems.
Such was the impact of his work that the cryptologists and code breakers of Britain’s Bletchley Park even named the German Lorenz deciphering machine after him.
If that wasn’t enough, ideas and concepts from the Lorenz machine were later used to build Colossus, arguably the world’s first digital computer.
Meet Heath Robinson, a man who possessed the unique ability to illustrate how we over complicate simple processes, in a gentle and humorous way.
His observations of our obsessions with technology are as current today as they were in his time, and perhaps we can learn something from him.
Highlighting the foolishness of war and building morale, made him and endearing British hero. The mad cap inventor image, also inspired Nick Park to create Wallace and Gromit.
A Heath-Robinson machine sports a complicated and over-engineered design, to solve a mundane and trivial problem.
As we plough deep into the information age, developers and engineers are often tarred with “over-engineering” problems. Due to their abstract nature it is hard to build and design systems. Simply, our minds struggle with abstract concepts, and it takes experience and discipline to keep a problem “simple”.
So what can we learn from Heath Robinson and his innovations?
Having unsuccessfully attempted to get inside Heath Robinson’s mind to write this post, I decided to draw my own Robinson-esque invention. What modern cues would trigger his imagination? What would he invent today?
Although he joked about “Weapons of Moronic Distinction”, there was often a topical nature to his gadget-ing, even though at it’s heart they were morale boosting. So I started brainstorming ideas of a “topical nature”.
Would he ridicule terrorists with devices, such as:
- Giant magnets for pulling guns out of terrorist hands
- Banana skin trip up device – launched when a panic button is pressed and banana skins drop from the ceiling to trip everyone up
- A terrorist selfie app, mounted on rifle – where the flash blinds them and passes their details to the authorities.
Somehow these ideas, were too political and not really in keeping with the “gentle” humour of a man that names his cat “Saturday Morning”.
Apple being in the news recently, for their record breaking profits, brought my attention to smart phones. Of course! How we obsess and worship these devices. This is a prime candidate for ridicule.
The ideas flowed as follows:
- Apple remote smell-o-rama – a very large helmet holding a bowl of different foods, with tubes down to the user’s nostrils, somehow controlled by an iPhone
- iPad money mountain builder – make use of unwanted iPads, for paddles on a machine that piles up all Apple’s money
- iPhone see ahead viewer – a periscope like device, allowing the user to browse the web while on the move.
- iPhone collision avoidance system – ah yes of course, that’s what Heath Robinson would invent.
So perhaps by looking at how Heath Robinson might invent a modern contraption, we can learn to innovate our own gadgets and gizmos?
Designing a Heath Robinson “Collision avoidance system for iPhone and Android”
How would it work?
Given any busy public place you are sure to see people absorbed in their smart phones as they try and navigate the crowds.
Why not have some contraption that triggers a warning of an impending collision with a similar oncoming smart phone tinkerer.
This contraption should follow cues from similar Heath Robinson machines. So to design such a thing we need to do a bit of research.
Below is an outline for how I designed my Robinson’esque machine:
1. Do your research
A Heath Robinson approach to research
Immerse yourself into your subject. Heath Robinson created a prolific collection of artwork and sketches. Many of these you can find at The William Heath Robinson Trust.
Study his inventions, look at how the mechanisms work. Would the machine actually do it’s job? Most of his contraptions were theoretically sound, however precarious they maybe in reality.
Try to emulate the style of the gizmos. How far apart are the cogs and pulleys? How are the components held together? Sketch out your own designs following your observations.
Look at the people. How are they feeling about this machine? What sort of people are they and why would they be using it?
Learning from Heath
Researching a Heath Robinson invention is no different from researching any idea. Whether an iPhone app or an Internet of Things (IoT) device, we need to get a feel for the problem we are trying to solve.
We need to understand the impact it will have on the people who use it and adjust the user experience accordingly.
Look at what your competitors are doing, “copy” their ideas and really understand how they work. Then you can build your own ideas and stand on their shoulders.
2. Brainstorm ideas, both ridiculous and inspiring
A Heath Robinson approach to brainstorming
Heath Robinson had many sketches of ideas. He would “tinker” with concepts to find what worked.
By building these “prototype sketches”, Heath was gradually able to introduce humour and ridicule.
He was a man of fertile imagination, and no doubt had many ideas for concepts. What is interesting is that he wasn’t frightened of the ridiculousness of his designs. In fact the more outrageous and ridiculous the better.
Learning from Heath
Often we are held back because we don’t want to appear ridiculous or show a “bad” idea. Instead any idea is a good idea, just maybe not in that context. Also ideas like to stand on top of one another, so gradually ideas build to a great idea.
Claudia Altucher has a book Become An Idea Machine – the premiss is to write down 10 ideas a day, to transform yourself into an Ideas Machine. Although not the best book I’ve read in January, the concept is a good one and certainly seems to open your eyes to coming up with solutions to problems.
Find humour within your concept. Subtle details can lead to very amusing designs. Try to highlight ridicule in some aspect of ourselves. Usually there is some obsession with we all indulge in, find it, embellish it and incorporate it into your contraption.
3. Think ironic grandeur
A Heath Robinson approach to ironic grandeur
If you look at many of the Heath Robinson sketches you soon see an “Ironic grandeur” in his designs.
People are clustered around the machines, which often tower above their heads. These people were solving big problems, all-be-it big to them.
In solving these big problems they took pride in their inventions and innovations. They maintain and interact with their machines with purpose and intent. They have built this device and the problem is solved. It does not seem to matter how they solved it.
Learning from Heath
Inventing and building is hard. Be proud of what you create, you have made something from nothing.
If you solve a problem embellish it with grandeur and make it standout.
When you decide to build something take that intent and make it uninterruptible. Don’t procrastinate, build and enjoy building.
Tim O’Reilly stated “work on stuff that matters”. To highlight he gave 3 litmus test rules:
- Work on something that matters to you more than money.
- Create more value than you capture.
- Take the long view.
We need to be solving Big problems as Peter Thiel says in his book Zero to One, “We wanted flying cars and all we got was 140 characters”. If we are only on this world for a short time, make it count.
If you want to be a Billionaire then the fastest way, is to solve a problem for a billion people. Dr Peter Diamandis
4. Make it work
A Heath Robinson approach to making it work
Even though the Heath Robinson inventions were unwieldy, they would work in principle. Every mechanism would do it’s job, in theory at least. Heath didn’t just put cogs, pulleys and strings together. He made a working version of a theoretical contraption.
A Heath Robinson illustration didn’t have work in reality. However it looked like it would work, our brains would fill in the blanks.
He spent time on the details, but ensured humour was locked into the design.
Learning from Heath
Build your prototypes so that they look like they work. Even if you fake everything, a user playing with a prototype will unearth valuable findings.
People tend to fill in the blanks, but it has too look and behave like a real system. As Apple says you must [Fake it to make it].
Learning from how Heath Robinson invented machines changed my perspective on creativity. There also seems to be a compelling magic in using “gentle” humour.
Maybe our lives in the information age are over complicated, but invention and humour is everywhere… so maybe I’ll start by renaming one of my sons “Saturday Morning”.
- Bletchley Park – http://www.bletchleypark.org.uk/
- Colossus Computer – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colossus_computer
- Wallace and Gromit – http://www.wallaceandgromit.com/
- William Heath Robinson Trust – http://www.heathrobinson.org/
- Become An Idea Machine: Because Ideas Are The Currency Of The 21st Century, Claudia Altucher
- Tim O’Reilly: Work on stuff that matters
- Zero to One: Notes on Start Ups, or How to Build the Future, Peter Thiel