Cartoons and Engineers

You may think that cartoons and engineers don´t mix, but what if I told you that cartoons can be a useful and fun way for engineers to practise their Technical English. No, I´m not talking about Tom and Jerry or any of their animal friends, but cartoons that inventors have drawn to visualise crazy machines and contraptions.

There´s one thing that these contraptions all share: they use very complex processes to produce absurdly simple results, for example, cleaning a person´s mouth with a napkin at the dinner table.

A lot of the famous cartoonists who have drawn these cartoons were working in the early years of the twentieth-century, when many people felt that there was too much technology and you could buy a contraption to do any job you needed doing. Maybe at the start of the twentieth-first century we sometimes get that feeling, too.

British cartoonist Heath Robinson´s cartoons became so famous that “Heath-Robinson contraption” came into official (English) dictionary use around 1912. American Rube Goldberg was also drawing a lot of crazy and pointless inventions at around the same time.

Nearly a hundred years later, competitions still take place worldwide in which participants, who are usually engineers or engineering students, compete to see who can build the best complex machine designed to complete a simple task.

Getting back to Technical English, I have used some of Heath Robinson´s and Rube Goldberg´s cartoons in the Technical English courses that I teach and my learners always enjoy working with them. We have a laugh at how silly the inventions are and it gets them producing a lot of good Technical English because they really want to be able to talk or write about the processes they can see. I use them to help my learners practise describing and explaining a technical process, which is a useful skill for people working in technical fields to have.

How to use cartoons in your technical English courses: 

If you search for Rube Goldberg or Heath Robinson images online (for example, on Google Images), you can see some of their cartoons. Just choose one that you like.

  1. The first thing you should do is ask your learners to brainstorm a list of the English words for the items they can see in the cartoon, using a dictionary to help them, if necessary. In the cartoon above, for example, the objects you can see include: a cigar lighter, a pail, a rocket, some seeds and a perch. The learners should know the words for the objects before they start to describe the process.
  2.  Next, the learners need to think about which actions have to happen for the machine to function and which English verbs they can use to describe these actions, for example, pullpushignitetilt.
  3. They also have to think about the English words they can use to describe a process; they need some sequencers, for example: first, then, next, after that, and finally.
  4. Then you need to focus on the English they need to explain cause and effect in processes, for example, thereby moving the …, this causes the … to …, and as a result.
  5. Now the learners are ready to write a short text which describes and explains the process they see in the cartoon. They could write the description down or they could record themselves talking about it using a voice recording app on their smartphone or a voice recording tool like Audioboo that you can find online, and then listen back to it.
  6. This could also be done as a pair or groupwork activity: one of the learners could describe and explain the process to the other person (without showing him/her the cartoon) and they could then draw a sketch of the invention on paper. You can compare your partner´s drawing with the original. Then you can change roles and do it the other way round.
  7. As a follow-up activity, learners could follow the same steps to describe and explain a process you know about from their work.


Filed under From the training room

9 responses to “Cartoons and Engineers

  1. eflnotes

    you may have seen this video by a 7 yr old?:
    one could turn down the sound on the video when he is explaining the process and ask students to name objects, actions, cause/effect.
    cheers for your post!

    • Don Lomas

      I have been using Heath Robinson Cartoons for years to get students to practice the use of the ‘Passive Voice’ when explaining technical processes. My favourite cartoon for this purpose is the one entitled “An interesting and elegant apparatus designed to overcome once and for all the difficulties of conveying green peas to the mouth.”

      • Thanks for your comment, Donald. You´ve probably been using Heath Robinson for longer than I have, since I only really became interested in his cartoons about a year ago. I completely agree with you about how useful they can be to get learners to practise using the passive voice. I´ll take a look at the cartoon you recommended and see if I can use it in one of my lessons.

        Best regards,

    • Hi there,
      You´re welcome. Glad you like the post.
      Unfortunately, the video you suggested is not available on YouTube in the country where I live (Germany), but maybe I can find it somewhere else. I also like showing videos with the sound turned down and to have the learners to say what they can see and talk about what they think is happening. I blogged about doing this with a video about electromagnets in a post I wrote on this blog in February: “Silent Movies”.

      Best regards,

  2. Yes, Goldberg has saved many of my classes. My students loved Mura’s Goldberg game as they had to fix the machine but also explain why it didn’t work and instruct their partner what to do. Afterwards they presented the process and also how it could be improved. I didn’t have time but I would have loved to have created some in class.


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