The archetypal “absent-minded professor”, Professor Branestawm needs five pairs of glasses on his head at all times, four for all the varied visual tasks (including one for looking over at people sternly) and the fifth for searching for the other four when he loses them. His clothes are held together, up and on by safety pins, as he keeps forgetting to sew the buttons on. Colonel Deddshott, of the Catapult Cavaliers, is his best friend, though the Colonel usually hasn’t the least idea what Branestawm is talking about. The two, and Branestawm’s live-in housekeeper Mrs. Flittersnoop, live in Great Pagwell, itself surrounded by a seemingly endless number of satellite Pagwells–Lesser Pagwell, Little Pagwell, Pagwell Green and so on.
Branestawm is always at work in his “Inventory”, creating things that…well, they work, but not quite in the way he intended them to; he forgets a ‘little squiggly thing’ in the clock intended to never need winding, so it doesn’t start over when it strikes twelve, but instead continues to thirteen, fourteen, fifteen and so on. To compound the problem of misguided inventions, Mrs. Flittersnoop and Colonel Deddshott often start things going awry through their lack of understanding; in one story, Mrs. Flittersnoop tosses what appears to be an uncorked bottle of cough syrup into the wastepaper bin, only to find that it’s the Elixir of Life, left open to breathe, and she’s inadvertently brought all the papers to life! Dressing machines, cuckoo clocks, pancake flippers, high-speed transport that proves so fast it gets you somewhere before you left (i.e. a time travel device), inventions never seem to come out quite as planned, though everyone around admires a man so ferociously intellectual that his shirt cuffs are never clean of calculations.
Still other adventures are simply a result of Branestawm’s own absent-minded intellectual abstraction—he writes out an invitation to Dedshott for tea, but sends on the blotting-paper rather than the invitation itself, or sequentially checks out and misplaces fourteen copies of the identical book from fourteen neighboring libraries, requiring him to return the one copy he can locate to each library in turn in a ever-increasingly frantic circle. Each turns out well, however; the Colonel brings over to his friend what appears to be something written in a language so arcane that only Branestawm can translate it, fortuitously in time for tea, and the fourteen head librarians, similarly invited on the same day for tea—Branestawm having forgotten he’s invited them at all— and they discover their library’s books, filed in fourteen separate (but logical) places in Branestawm’s own library.
This was the first in a series of books about the eccentric inventor, Professor Branestawm; or rather (I think) they’re collections of short stories previously published in magazines in England in the thirties and forties. I have to admit this was my favorite, not least because Heath Robinson illustrated them. (Rube Goldberg is the closest American equivalent to Robinson’s rickety cobbled-together machines, though in Goldberg’s case, the equipment was a bit more deliberate in design.) Alas, Robinson died in 1944, and the later illustrators, though amusing in their own right, never quite recaptured that big-headed, vague and distracted nature of Professor Branestawm and the affectionate depiction of the pompous Deddshott, surely modeled on all the elderly before their time military officers back from India and other points of the Glorious Empire.
The books I have, published in the 1970s, are labeled as being for six to ten year olds; these days, I can see particularly precociously literate kids that age loving them but I have to wonder how many of the references would go swoosh over the kids’ heads? How many kids today know what blotting paper is, and why writing would appear peculiar on a piece of it? Not that going over kids’ heads is necessarily a problem, mind; challenging them to figure out what the book really means can’t hurt if the readers have got a bit of tenacity. Fun though.