Students working on fan experiment.

Strange contraptions

This is a group-work speaking activity for students who are at the higher levels. It takes about an hour. I originally developed the idea for a group of visiting French engineering students. Heath Robinson was a cartoonist who satirised the machine age by devising and drawing contraptions of great complexity for performing simple or absurd tasks...

If possible, and being aware of copyright regulations, download a couple of examples of Heath Robinson's unique contraptions to distribute amongst your students. One I have often used is ‘The Machine for Peeling Potatoes.'Just try a quick search using


  • Divide the class into groups of three or four.
  • Distribute copies of the Heath Robinson design(s) and get students to try and guess what the machines are for and give a brief idea of how they might work.
  • It might be a nice idea to tell students at this point who Heath Robinson was, and to tell them why he dreamed up these crazy devices, as outlined in my introduction. There is a short biography on the BBC history website.
  • Distribute enough large sheets of paper and pens for each group. If an OHP (overhead projector) is available, you could consider using transparencies and OHP pens, or you might like to consider using an interactive whiteboard if one is available to you... 
  • Introduce the main task - communicating only in English with one another, each group has forty minutes or so to design their own ‘Heath Robinson' machine. Explain that the machine doesn't need to have any practical use - in fact, the more absurd the better. 
  • At the end of the main task, invite students from each group to give a short, informal presentation to the rest of the class. Each group must give the machine a title, explain the purpose of their machine, and give a brief explanation of how it works.