The magical machines of Rowland Emett


If you’ve never heard of Rowland Emett, then you’re in for a real treat. This mid-20th century kinetic sculptor was a hybrid of Rube Goldberg, Jules Verne, and Doctor Seuss. He was known for his fantastical drawings and astoundingly creative machine sculptures made of everyday objects that celebrate technical inventiveness rather than the colonial triumphs of the industrial age.

The son of a businessman and amateur inventor, Emett’s ingenuity was instilled in him early. He excelled at drawing in school and began inventing devices at an early age, applying for his first patent at the age of fourteen. During WWII he was employed by the Air ministry as a draughtsman. There, he perfected his illustrative style and was a regular contributor in Punch Magazine, where he was especially known for his drawings of absurd trains.



In 1950 he was approached by the developers of the Festival of Britain to create a full scale working model of his fictional railway to carry passengers. The Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Branch Line was one of the most popular attractions carrying over 2 million passengers at the 1951 festival. This was the beginning of the most fertile period in his career when he shifted his focus to kinetic sculpture, bringing his whimsical machines off the page and into the real world.

emett4In the 1960s he was commissioned to create a mechanical computer which he entitled the Forget-Me-Not. Here is a video of the computer in operation.

Also, United Artists hired him to work on the movie ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ for which he created the namesake car and the machines of the eccentric Dick Van Dyke character Caractacus Potts.  The following video of the breakfast machine is superb (the action begins around 1:45).

Here is another video featuring the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang machines.

Throughout the 1970s he received civic commissions for public works, and had larger exhibits during his tours around the world. Eventually, Emmett’s work could be found in such institutions as the Smithsonian and Ontario Science Center in Toronto.

An inspiring exhibition of Emett’s work is now open at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in Birmingham, England. Consisting of 12 working machines and cartoons spanning his entire career, this is the largest such display of his work ever.

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About Author

Brandon Bailey is a late bloomer, specifically a Saussurea Obvallata. Someday you may see him at a local botanical display, or perhaps just withering on the vine. Brandon has had a lifelong fascination with science, history, travel, and the lost arts. He can be found writing in East Los Angeles, California, or exploring the city’s many hidden treasures. Brandon is also a self-taught pianist and a connoisseur of music in all its forms.

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