If someone makes or mends something, particularly a piece of machinery, with wire and string and so on, and the thing looks ingenious, but perhaps unsafe and a little complicated, an English person may well describe it as "a Heath Robinson affair" or "a Heath Robinson contraption".
It’s not a very flattering thing for someone to say about something you’ve made. On the other hand, of course, inventors are just the sort of people who often begin with Heath Robinson contraptions which, when they’ve been modified and redesigned, turn out to be invaluable items for thousands of people. We also sometimes use the expression almost as an apology, when we’ve managed to get over a mechanical problem by perhaps tying the thing together with string. "It´s a bit Heath-Robinsonish," you’ll hear someone say, "but it´ll do."
But who or what is Heath Robinson?
William Heath Robinson was, in fact, an artist – a cartoon and book illustrator – who was born in London in May, 1872. His father was an illustrator for the London Penny Illustrated Paper, and William took after him. He attended the Islington School of Art and Royal Academy schools, and then worked for his father for a while in his studio in the Strand in London. William however soon became a well-known book illustrator and his publications included the Hans Anderson stories, Edgar Allan Poe’s poems, Rabelais, Shakespeare’s "Twelfth Night", "The Water Babies", and many more. But it was for his work as a humorist and cartoonist in magazines like the Strand Magazine, and the Illustrated London News, that he became world famous even before the outbreak of World War I. in 1914. Because of his cartoons, like the one on page 26, his name stands for any inventions which look absurdly ingenious and impracticable.
Basically, he caricatured machinery and inventions in the same way that other cartoonists caricature humans and animals. And you don’t need to go into his inventions of drawings too deeply to find that they are generally absurd, complicated pieces of machinery, designed for totally ridiculous purposes. His drawings tend to be funny also because they are done in such great detail and with such seriousness, and the people in them always appear so serious.
Heath Robinson died in 1944. He left behind him, in his drawings and cartoons, a kind of humor which people still enjoy, and in the English language, a word which describes almost any contraption or piece of machinery made out of bits of junk held together with bits of string or wire.
So if you come across a piece of machinery which looks odd or badly made, with bits of string holding it together, but which actually works, remember we’ve got a name for it: "A Heath-Robinson Affair".