Tim Griffiths began his working life as an architect, but soon grew tired of how five minutes’ inspiration could turn into hours of tedium dealing with contractors’ whims.

Now 59, he says he “retired” a quarter of a century ago in 1985 to concentrate on the fun bits.

That chiefly involves designing his own artistic impressions of how buildings could look – such as the predictive image he keeps on his mobile phone of plans for the now successfully-restored interior of the 1834 Birmingham Town Hall.

Bubbling away inside Tim’s brain, though, was a secret admiration for the extraordinary creativity of the man he now cites as his greatest inspiration – one Frederick Rowland Emett (1906-1990).

A forgotten artist who had an ability to draw the kind of Punch cartoons that Gerald Scarfe would surely love to have on his walls at home.

And the type of ridiculous inventions that Wallace & Gromit would drool and then faint over.

A man whose contraptions – or automata, as they are officially known – helped to bring Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to startling phantasmagorial life on the silver screen in 1968.

Tim Griffiths
Tim Griffiths
 

If only Emett’s genius hadn’t disappeared from public consciousness, he’d surely already be ranked alongside Joseph Chamberlain, JRR Tolkien and Matthew Boulton as one of Birmingham’s most famous pioneers.

Now, thanks to his fellow Brummie, Tim, he’ll be Mr Nobody no more.

Having long missed the old touring shows of Emett’s mechanical inventions which would go on display at events like the Ideal Home Exhibition at the former Bingley Hall where the ICC is today, Tim recalls that he first began to wonder whatever happened to the artist at the turn of the millennium.

It turns out that Emett’s career ranged from working on designs for the Gloster Meteor, the first jet fighter, to a commission in 1960 to produce his vision of a “computer” for US company Honeywell.

 

In between, his Far Tottering And Oyster Creek Railway carried more than two million people around Battersea Park during the 1951 Festival of Britain and sealed his reputation as a maker of “things”.

Like his father, Emett had also worked in advertising during the 1930s.

He continued developing his artistic skills whilst working in Birmingham for Siviter Smith the process engravers, like his grandfather.

During the Second World War he worked with Rolls Royce and is said to have put an extra foot on to the length of a Stirling Bomber’s fuselage because he “didn’t have the faintest idea what he was doing”.

“In the year 2000 I had heard nothing of him and there was little online,” says Tim.

“I then discovered that some of his art works were coming up for sale at prices you could then afford, because nobody knew who Emett was.”

Tim could never have guessed that a decade later he would have pieced together enough information, and generated sufficient external interest, to have founded The Rowland Emett Society two years ago.

“I discovered the domain name rowlandemett.com was still available, so I bought it,” he smiles.

As awareness and appreciation have continued to spread, more and more of Emett’s secrets have begun to filter their way into the public domain.

Daughter Claire, and some former colleagues, have all chipped in.

A stunning new exhibition dedicated to Emett’s work has just opened at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery and is sure to light the blue touch paper on public interest in a forgotten man.

Until September 21, the Gas Hall will be rammed to the rafters with the most extraordinary working machines that most visitors will have ever seen, including 12 of the 15 contraptions known to have survived in the UK.

They were created with such extreme turns of imagination, it’s nigh on impossible to take them all in.

Individually, but especially collectively, the contraptions represent the popular perception of British traits.

Ingenuity, individuality, durability, eccentricity and whimsy.

Also on display are many of Emett’s distinctive and original drawings.

For Tim, the diverse and comprehensive nature of the exhibition is both a cherished dream come true and pure serendipity – a once-in-a-lifetime chance to unite all sorts of different components in the one place that the young designer could call home.

“Emett was born in London, but lived in Birmingham in between the wars,” says Tim.

SS Pussiewillow II, with Rowland Emett.
SS Pussiewillow II, with Rowland Emett.
 

“We definitely have to claim him as a Brummie, one of our own.

Married in April 1941, it was thanks to the commercial acumen of his Birmingham-born wife Elsie May Evans, known as Mary, that he became ultra-successful with major companies eager to benefit from his advertising-to-engineering expertise.

One of Emett’s contraptions in the Gas Hall is the Maud Moon-Probe Lunacycle, made to promote Skol Lager in the 1970s.

Tim says: “Silversmith’s daughter Mary was the business side of the partnership, which left Emett free to be creative.

“Mary dealt with the financial side and had large corporations on both sides of the Atlantic eating out of the palm of her hand with such a unique thing to sell – nobody else could come up with all of this.”

From training at art college to working in the aeronautical industry, Emett was particularly buoyed by the success of his Punch cartoons.

His growing imagination knew no boundaries, yet he built his contraptions using everyday materials including funnels, lampshades, shuttlecocks and graters sourced from his own house.

The secret of Emett’s delicate yet durable machines remains his meticulous attention to detail.

He would have almost every part of every machine moving in stress-free harmony, while using few bearings or components that would wear out.

Emett even designed special storage facilities for each section so that the machines could be transported on tours.

To ensure efficiency and prevent mistakes, each housing would have a silhouette of the appropriate piece and there would be detailed instructions about the order they had to be placed in.

Currently completing an Emett biography called Things, Tim says: “Emett was left handed, like me.

“But his father turned him away from it and he became ambidextrous – like another Leonardo Da Vinci.

“He could turn his hand to most things and was very adaptable.

“Emett had terrific artistic skills and then he turned to all of this mechanical stuff. He crossed over.

“These days, people focus narrower and narrower.

“Yes, he would have others who could do specialist things such as the electrics and ironworks, but he had to know all about these processes himself, otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to talk to people and be so hands on.”

For years, Emett would send his contraptions out on tour to events like the Ideal Home Exhibition and would sometimes appear with them to keep his name in the public domain.

 

But, once he began to get older, Mary took control of his legacy’s destiny – hence the exhibits have been sourced from the UK, Canada and the US.

Tim explains: “Mary knew that by splitting them up there would be a better chance of them surviving.

“If everything had been kept in the UK, the chances are it would have all ended up in skips.

“That said, Mary ordered the destruction of the ‘Emettland’ exhibition that used to be in Lewis’s in Birmingham.

“I’ve met the woman who broke it up – his niece! Thankfully, the train survived and we’ve got that in the show.”

Tim believes there will never be an exhibition like this again.

“It’s purely by fluke that we’ve been able to put it on,” he says.

“There was a gap in the Gas Hall schedule, just when different components were becoming available at the same time.”

Town Centre Securities (TCS) plc has the UK’s largest private collection of Emett Machines and has loaned items in advance of the 50th anniversary of its own Leeds’ Merrion Centre display from October 3 until mid-November.

Emett went to St Benedict’s Junior School and Waverley Grammar School, just a few minutes’ walk across Small Heath Park from home.

Local engineering firms which inspired his thinking included BSA, Lanchester and Alldays & Onions.

Emett later joined the Birmingham School of Art, then known as the Central School of Arts and Crafts.

Visiting tutors at the centre of excellence included Eric Gill who in 1907 had founded an artistic community in Ditchling, Sussex.

Although Emett moved to Sussex – where he died aged 84 in a nursing home on November 13, 1990 – Tim blames Birmingham’s relentless “forward” nature for the fact that such an obvious genius has yet to be recognised in the city of his formative years.

To redress the balance, he hopes that a blue plaque bearing Emett’s name will soon be adorning the York House office building on the corner of Great Charles Street and Newhall Street, near to the Gas Hall.

“Emett didn’t train as an engineer, but his Forget-Me-Not Computer, now in Canada, had moving parts which someone recently described as being like a series of what we now call ‘apps’.

“He dissected individual bits of the computer and made a feature of each rather than having it all in one grey box – he interpreted how the computer would do the job and it was shaped like an elephant which never forgets.”

“If this exhibition doesn’t get young people interested in making things, I don’t know what will. Emett’s machines are so complex, I can’t imagine a better way of inspiring a child.”

* Marvellous Machines: The Wonderful World of Rowland Emett will be open daily until September 21 – from Monday to Thursday 10am-5pm, Friday 10.30am-5pm and weekends from 10am-5pm.
Admission: adults £5; children (three to 15), £3; conc £3; family: two adults, two children £10; unwaged £2. Details: www.bmag.org.uk or www.rowlandemett.com
Also from May to September, Millennium Point will be the temporary home of Emett’s gigantic clock, usually on display at Victoria Shopping Centre, Nottingham.