Heath Robinson / Rube Goldberg machines that Heath Robinson and “Rube” Goldberg themselves would have approved of; Or, The wonderful world of Frederick Rowland Emett and his things

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The Shell By-Plane X 100 Astroterramare of Professor Septimus Urge (far right), Pleasure Gardens of the Festival of Britain, Battersea Park, London, England. Anon., “New British Jet Unique, but Not Matchless.” Aviation Week, 18 August 1952, 44.

Greetings, my reading friend. How are you this week?

May I offer you the caption of the photographs you just saw, my reading… Err, why the puzzled look? Please do not tell me that the names Heath Robinson and / or “Rube” Goldberg do not ring a bell. It is too early in the day for such a shocking revelation. Sigh… What do children learn in school these days?

You do realise that, by forcing me to explain who William Heath Robinson (1872-1944) and Reuben Garrett Lucius “Rube” Goldberg (1883-1970) were, you, yes, yes, you, are the one who is extending the length of this issue of our wonderful blog / bulletin / thingee, do you not?

Anyway, Robinson was / is an English artist, cartoonist and illustrator best known for his popular and amusing cartoons of recondite contraptions / doodads / doohickeys performing simple tasks in pretty convoluted ways. The very popularity of said cartoons gave birth to the British expression Heath Robinson contraption to describe a similarly recondite contraption, either real or fictitious.

Goldberg, on the other hand, was / is an award-winning American author, cartoonist and sculptor best known for his popular and amusing cartoons of recondite contraptions / doodads / doohickeys performing simple tasks in pretty convoluted ways. The very popularity of said cartoons gave birth to the American expression Rube Goldberg machine to describe a similarly recondite machine, either real or fictitious. But back to our caption.

Did I mention that the aforementioned caption was not exactly short? So sorry, or not.

First photo of Britain’s latest challenge to U.S. air supremacy, the multicolored multiplace X-100 jet aircraft, have been released just in time for the pre-Farnborough propaganda buildup.

Considered to be in the vertiplane category, the X-100 combines direct rotor lift and jet propulsion in a unique amphibious airframe.

The jet engine is claimed to embody almost unknown principles. It uses a centrifugal antistatic energizer whose rotary condensers pass between electromagnets and charge pith-balls with alternate negative and positive currents. The pith-balls then become confused and run violently up and down static collector rods. This motion builds up a potentially powerful potential in a semi-atomic, fully-syphomic closed circuit using specially lightened heavy water.

A single Rato unit, slung forward under the hull, utilizes an expendable ignition system, composed mainly of ordinary phosphor matches.

An auxiliary engine is mounted in the hull. This powerplant is a crankless combination beam engine which provides propulsion for either sea or air. The walking beams are surmounted by four gas-filled copper spheres which rise and fall gracefully under the influence of the engine. Armament is one forward-firing cannon of exceptional bore and destructive power.

Designer of the craft, which bears the full designation of Shell By-Plane X-100, is Emett who has an international reputation as an industrial designer. Emett’s work has included the complete design of rolling stock and locomotives for the Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Railway. He could be considered the British counterpart of the equally famed American designer, Mr. Rube Goldberg.

While I have no intention to gloze this text, some contextual information may prove useful.

The term Farnborough referred to the world-famous airshow held annually, at the time, in Farnborough, England.

In turn, the term Rato, an acronym which stands for rocket assisted take-off, referred to the use of rocket “bottles” used to help heavily loaded aircraft off the ground. Said “bottles” were dropped after takeoff.

The rest of the quote requires no explanation. If you do not know was a fully-syphomic closed circuit is, you are truly beyond salvation. Still, yours truly does have this bridge I would very much like to sell… Cash only. Small denomination Canadian bills. Used. New ones have too strong a smell for my taste. Anyway…

Once upon a time, back in October 1906 to be more precise, Frederick Roland Emett came into this world, in London, England. Yes, Roland, not Rowland. The latter spelling was adopted by Emett at some point later on.

Like a great many young male Homo sapiens of his generations, Emett fell in love with trains. Theoretical physicist Sheldon Lee Cooper would approve.

Oddly enough, Emett attended high school in Birmingham, England. It was seemingly there that he truly began to show a deep talent for drawing. His cartoonish renderings of vehicles, machinery and members of the professorial staff delighted his friends. What the victims of Emett’s pencil thought of his artwork has eluded me so far. Pity.

What Emett did during the interwar years is unclear, at least to me. This being said (typed?), he spent a good part of the 1930 working as a draughtsman, for an engineering firm.

That as yet unclear period of Emett’s life came to a close with the onset of the Second World War. He spent most of the conflict working as a draughtsman for the Air Ministry, the British ministry responsible for managing the affairs of the British air force, the Royal Air Force, and of British civil aviation.

In parallel to this, even before the start of the conflict in fact, I think, Emett began to produce cartoons for a very well known and popular humour / satire weekly magazine. Indeed, Emett of Punch, as he was sometimes / often called later on, continued to produce cartoons for Punch until the 1950s, if not later. Five books of cartoons published in that magazine came out between 1943 and 1949. They sold very well.

Emett’s spouse, Elsie May “Mary” Emett, born Evans, cowrote a delightful children’s book with him, in 1943. Anthony and Antimacassar is now a collector’s item.

A number of cartoons Emett drew during the Second World War included railway scenes. As time went by, his mind and pen created truly unique trains, both bizarre and lumbering, trains whose steam locomotives had needlessly tall chimneys. Said trains were operated by railway companies with pretty silly names.

A demonstration of the popularity of Emett’s railway humour took place in 1951 when the Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Branch Railway, a railway he had imagined in 1939, or was it 1944, came to life during a supremely successful national exhibition, a country wide civic pageant, both entertaining and pedagogical, the Festival of Britain, held in 1951 in the United Kingdom.

The railway in question actually came to life in May 1951, in London, at the Pleasure Gardens of the Festival of Britain, in Battersea Park. Three locomotives ran on the 450 or so metre (1 500 or so feet) long closed-circuit track: Nellie, a fairly conventional looking locomotive, Neptune, a cross between a locomotive and a paddle wheel steamer, and Wild Goose, a cross between a locomotive and a balloon. The slow-moving miniature railway was an instant hit.

Living among ruined buildings and faced with rationing, all this after almost 6 years of war, Londoners and Britons from all walks of life needed a break.

Tragically, in July, Wild Goose and Nellie inexplicably hit each other, something which should never have happened. A woman died in the crash and 13 other people were slightly injured. Emett was understandably devastated.

The railway was back in operation within a day or two, with Neptune as the sole locomotive. Wild Goose and Nellie were soon repaired, however. The cause of the crash was seemingly never fully explained.

It should be noted that Emett designed a Festival of Britain poster for the British Travel Association which was plastered all over the United Kingdom.

After the closure of the Festival of Britain, the Pleasure Gardens became part and parcel of Battersea Park. The Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Branch Railway which, by then, had 2 or so million passengers under its belt, moved to another area of that green space in 1953. Given a longer track, it continued to delight crowds until 1975. Yours truly cannot say when Nellie and Wild Goose when scrapped, as several miniature locomotives were added to the railway’s fleet over the years, and…

What about Neptune, you ask, my concerned reading friend? Well, its chassis was seemingly sold in 1954 to a miniature railway owned and operated by Harry. N. Barlow, the miniature railway engineer who had built Nellie, Neptune and Wild Goose. Yours truly cannot say when Neptune’s chassis was scrapped. This being said (typed?), the Lakeside Miniature Railway was still going strong as of 2022.

The very success of the Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Branch Railway was a turning point in Emett’s life. He never really had to worry about making ends meet after that.

As proof of this turning point, one only needs to mention a 12-page portfolio in a July 1954 issue of a highly popular American weekly illustrated magazine. Would you believe that the management of Life had sent Emett on an all expense paid, 5 or so months, 13 000 or so kilometre (8 000 or so miles) tour of the United States? It must be nice to have money…

One had to wonder if Emett’s physical resemblance with well known American actor, comedian, dancer, musician and singer Danny Kaye, born David Daniel Kaminsky, resulted in one or more amusing situations, especially when the British cartoonist went to California

Interestingly, Emett had provided illustrations for an article in Life published in April 1953 about the June coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, born Elizabeth Alexandra Mary of house Windsor, a British monarch mentioned in January, March and December 2021 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

It goes without saying that Emett provided the publisher of Life with additional sets of cartoons as time went by.

Emett completed the vehicle which made this pontification possible, namely the Shell By-Plane X 100 Astroterramare, in May 1952. Modest as ever, Emett claimed that this mechanical wonder was the brainchild of Professor Septimus Urge.

And yes, Shell Transport and Trading Company Limited, the British petroleum giant which, with the Dutch petroleum giant Naamloze Vennootschap Koninklijke Nederlandse Petroleum Maatschappij, made up the global petroleum giant commonly known as Shell, paid for the construction of the Astroterramare.

Claimed Emett, the new machine was superior to the brand-new wonder of the air, the British de Havilland D.H. 106 Comet jet-powered airliner, the first machine of this type to carry paying passengers, in early May 1952. After all, all the Comet could do was fly. The Astroterramare could travel on land, on the sea or in the air.

Testing was going well at the time, stated Emett. There had been at least one flight. The main teething problem was the vehicle’s toaster, which had seriously burnt some buns.

Sadly, the Astroterramare was permanently grounded in around 1963. It was presumably scrapped at some point in the 1960s. Pity.

Happily, the same cannot be said of the Featherstone-Kite Openwork Basketweave Mark Two Gentleman’s Flying Machine. Would you believe that this highly advanced design presented to the public in April 1969 was commissioned by the British aerospace giant Hawker Siddeley Group Limited, seemingly in the hope of increasing the sales of its Hawker Siddeley H.S.125 business jet in the United States?

Please note that Hawker Siddeley Group has been mentioned many times in our you know what since March 2018.

Two or three examples of Featherstone-Kite Openwork Basketweave Mark Two Gentleman’s Flying Machine may still exist as of 2022: one at the Merrion Centre, a shopping centre in Leeds, England, one at the Mid-America Science Museum in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and, seemingly, one at the Ontario Science Centre of Toronto, Ontario.

Would you believe that, as of 2022, the Merrion Centre, the Mid-America Science Museum and the Ontario Science Centre may well have close to 20 of Emett’s wonderful machines between them?

Do you remember seeing the ten or so machines of the Ontario Science Centre at the National Museum of Science and Technology, in Ottawa, Ontario, as the Canada Science and Technology Museum, a sister / brother institution of the incomparable Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, was known in May 1976, when the temporary exhibition opened?

Some of Emett’s creations were also on display at the National Museum of Science and Technology for a few months in 1985-86 and 1993-94.

Yours truly has the nagging sensation I have seen at least one of Emett’s machines at some point. The location (Ottawa?) and date (1993-94?) of that sighting continues to elude me however. Memory is a fickle thing.

Before I forget, no pun intended, from 1956 or so onward, Emett constructed his wonderful machines, his things as he called them, in his workshop, in England, a blacksmith forge built in the second half of the 17th century.

By then, Emett, his spouse and his daughter lived in an 18th century house he had christened Wild Goose Cottage. Yes, yes, Wild Goose, like the locomotive. The family had moved there in 1953. This was apparently the couple’s 15th (!) dwelling since 1941. The mind boggles.

One of the first things put together in that workshop may well have been the Ideal Home…

But back to our train of thought.

In 1966, Honeywell Controls Limited, the British subsidiary of the diversified American firm Honeywell Corporation, commissioned Emett to design a computer. The latter delivered a machine whose core consisted of a pair of elephants, one at each end of the main module, Forget-Me-Not Junior and Forget-Me-Not Senior. Why elephants, you ask, my sometime obtuse reading friend? Why?! You really need to ask?

Another central element of the Forget-Me-Not computer was a character named Fred or, more precisely, FRED (Frightfully Rapid Evaluator and Dispenser), who evaluated the questions asked and dispensed them to the machine’s pachydermian memory banks.

Incidentally, would you believe that the aforementioned Featherstone-Kite Openwork Basketweave Mark Two Gentleman’s Flying Machine had a autopilot by the name of… Fred, or more precisely, FRED (Freehand Remembering Empirical Doodling)? Small world, is it not? But I digress.

Over the months and years, the Forget-Me-Not computer was displayed at various trade shows. It spent some time on the site of the Exposition internationale et universelle de Montréal, or Expo 67, which took place from April to October 1967, in… Montréal, Québec, for example. You will be pleased to hear (read?) that this amaaazing device now belongs to the Ontario Science Centre.

Was this Emett’s first encounter with computers, you ask, my reading friend? Nay. Well, you be the judge. Back in 1953, Emett had drawn a cartoon, for the aforementioned Punch, to accompany an article on the recently published British budget. Said article mentioned a teaching aid developed in 1949, the MONIAC (Monetary National Income Analogue Computer), or, as the author of the Punchian article called it, the Financephalograh.

And no, the MONIAC was not really a computer. It consisted of a series of transparent plastic tanks and pipes from which and into which coloured water, in other words money / moolah, flowed to show the flow of money in the British economy. The 12 to 14 MONIACS made in the late 1940s and early 1950s for users in the United Kingdom, the United States, Turkey, New Zealand, Netherlands, Australia and perhaps elsewhere proved surprisingly effective in their intended role.

It’s a MONIAC, MONIAC on the floor, and it’s flowing like it’s never flowed before.

Sorry, sorry. I rather liked / like the American 1983 (!) romantic drama dance film Flashdance.

As you well know, my cinephile reading friend, Emett and a small team of skilled craftsmen played an important role in a 1968 British musical fantasy film you may heard of – or seen. Indeed, over a period of about two years, he and his team brought to life 8 of the elaborate inventions of Royal Navy officer and eccentric inventor Caractacus Potts, played by American actor, comedian, dancer and singer Richard Wayne “Dick” Van Dyke, among them the Personal Gentleman’s Moon Rocket, the Hush-a-Bye Hot Air Rocking Chair, the Humbug Major Sweet Machine and the Automatic Supper or Breakfast Machine.

Incidentally, did you know that one of the co-screenwriters of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was a well-known British author (James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr Fox, Matilda, etc.), poet and Second World War fighter pilot mentioned in a June 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee? Better yet, did you know that the screenplay co-authored by Roald Dahl was loosely based on a 1964 novel, Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang: The Magical Car, by a British writer, journalist and former naval intelligence officer by the name of… Ian Lancaster Fleming? I kid you not. Dumm dee-dee dumm dumm… Sorry.

Ours is indeed a small interconnected world. It is just too bad that the certain members of the coterie of not so young male Homo sapiens presently at the tiller seem determined to throw the planet off a cliff. More than usual that is.

Dare yours truly suggest that said members bring to mind a 1984 song by Canadian singer-songwriter and guitarist Bruce Douglas Cockburn? Yes, yes, my shocked reading friend, the song If I had a rocket launcher. Too dangerous, you say? You are probably right.

And yes, my reading friend, the creator of a certain British secret service agent was mentioned several times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since May 2018. Thank you for derailing my train of thought. Yours truly seems to be attracted by tunnels both deep and dark.

Incidentally, United Artists Corporation, the American movie studio which distributed Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, sent Emett around the world to advertise that motion picture. In September 1968, the latter was in Montréal, for example. It must be nice to have money…

Many of Potts’ inventions also travelled across the United States (and Canada? and United Kingdom??), in duplicate form. The purpose of these journeys was to boost the sales of the 60+ items (colouring books, scale models, hand puppets, slippers, thermos bottles, etc.) introduced just in time for the 1968 Christmas season.

Examples of at least 2 Potts inventions were part of the collection of the Ontario Science Centre as of 2022: the Hush-a-Bye Hot Air Rocking Chair and the Humbug Major Sweet Machine.

Before I forget, Emett did not design the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang automobile.

This being said (typed?), yours truly is pleased to inform you that the one fully functional vehicle of that type has been the property, since 2011, of a New Zealand film director, producer and screenwriter. That gentleman fascinated by First World War aviation, mentioned in November 2018 and February 2021 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee, was / is, of course, Sir Peter Robert Jackson.

Emett continued to design machine as the 1960s came to a close. One only needs to bring up the lunar bicycle Exploratory Moon-Probe Lunacycle M.A.U.D. (Manually Assisted Universal Deviator), driven by Professor Leo Capricorn of Prittlewell University. Or the Vintage Car of the Future ordered by the American automotive supplier Borg-Warner Corporation. The latter vehicle went on display for the first time at the 1972 edition of the London Motor Show, in … London, in October.

Please note that one of the 3 Exploratory Moon-Probe Lunacycle M.A.U.D. made by Emett was part of the collection of the Ontario Science Centre as of 2022.

Please also note that Borg-Warner was mentioned in a January 2020 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

It is worth noting that Emett also developed a few / several whimsical clocks. One only needs to mention the Rhythmical Time Fountain / Aqua Horological Tintinnabulator, a water-powered musical clock inaugurated in 1973 in a shopping mall in Nottingham, England, or the Cats Cradle Pussiewillow III, inaugurated in 1981 in a shopping centre in Basildon, England.

Emett gradually went into retirement in the 1980s. He died in November 1990 at the age of 84.

This crazy world of ours needs more people like him – and far fewer not so young male Homo sapiens fascinated by cliffs.

And yes, there are some people who think that Emett was one of the several inspirations for… Emmett Lathrop “Doc” Brown, the inventor, scientist and time traveller of the American Back to the Future movie franchise. What do you think?

This writer wishes to thank the people who provided information. Any mistake contained in this article is my fault, not theirs.

Ta ta for now.

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Rénald Fortier