Back To The Old Drawing Board

It’s exactly the middle of the year, so today we have one of the items that inspired the idea for the blog. There’s several stories, so settle in…

“Well, Back To The Old Drawing Board” by Peter Arno, first published in the March 1, 1941 issue of New Yorker magazine.


It’s a remarkable cartoon, and seems simple, but on careful consideration of the structure you can see it’s by a master. The dynamics, from the inclusion of the ambulance and the pilot on his parachute, the senior officer’s sideways look to the somewhat ethereally faced designer, all are naturally ‘read’ in sequence, each element newsletter-03being crucial to the joke. This is explained much better than I have by Arno inspired cartoonist Paul Karasik, with (left) his explanation drawing here. Interestingly, there’s a few cues (the uniforms, the vertical rudder stripe markings) that indicate Arno’s showing it as a European prototype – maybe the United State armed air forces mightn’t have seen the joke.

You know the phrase, you may not know the origin. But unlike so many other well-known phrases that there’s convincing sounding (but completely fictional) stories about, we actually know where this one came from. There’s plenty of references, and no dispute. As explained here in ‘The Phrase Finder’:

‘This term has been used since WWII as a jocular acceptance that a design has failed and that a new one is needed. It gained common currency quite quickly and began appearing in US newspapers by 1947, as here in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Washington, December 1947: “Grid injuries for the season now closing suggest anew that nature get back to the drawing board, as the human knee is not only nothing to look at but also a piece of bum engineering.” It was well-enough known by 1966 for it to be used as a title for an episode in the ‘Get Smart’ TV series, and has also been used as the title of several books. A drawing board is, of course, an architect’s or draughtsman’s table, used for the preparation of designs or blueprints.The phrase originated as the caption to a cartoon produced by Peter Arno (Curtis Arnoux Peters, Jr.), for the New Yorker magazine, in 1941.”

What’s interesting is that a drawing board was always a pretty specialised tool, yet Arno obviously hit on a concept, using it, that resonated with people – now for getting on for three-quarters of a century – and into an era when almost nobody is likely to be familiar with the tool!

Yet the cartoon has been occasionally imitated, here’s one by Andrew Frazer on a very modern European Union issue.


And a recreation that’s closer in time, but not such a close ‘tribute’, by Flight Lieutenant Terence Duigan. A Royal Australian Air Force combat pilot and nephew of the first Australian to build and fly his own manned heavier than air aircraft, Duigan had ample artistic talent to do his own, popular artwork, training and qualifying as an architect before joining up, but obviously felt that this one could be re-interpreted for an Australian audience.


Particularly of interest to us, as it’s on an aviation theme again. Here he’s used red white and blue roundels, making it a British Commonwealth air force machine, and given Duigan’s Australian and the removal of the red roundel after the start of the Pacific war, I’m thinking it’s a 1941, early 1942 artwork –  contemporary with the original.  Somewhat callously, Duigan’s not included a pilot on a parachute as Arno did. But there’s plenty of good detail, and I particularly like the little ‘gifts’ in Duigan’s work, that Arno’s precise, stripped back work doesn’t allow. (Another brilliant Arno cartoon, and his import to the great New Yorker can be found here.) Duigan’s ejected monocle  from one officer, the slide rule in the Boffin’s hand, and the truck in the background bounced into the air by the impact.

So why is this cartoon originally the inspiration for the blog? Very simply because I thought it a terrific story when I first came across it, but the rights to Arno’s work mean I simply cannot publish something on it in the day job. So here we are instead. All a ‘fair use’ critique.

James Kightly, Vintage Aero Writer.

Image copyright The New Yorker, copies available for sale at Fine Art America here. The Terence Duigan story is covered by the publication ‘Man of the Sky’ available from the  Australian National Aviation Museum, Moorabbin, here.

2 Comments Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s