Picture courtesy of rubegoldberg.com
Do you remember watching cartoons as a kid and seeing a completely elaborate machine made up of household items arranged into a domino effect just to accomplish a very simple task? Or have you ever played the game Mouse Trap?
If so, then you are familiar with the ever entertaining Rube Goldberg machine! These delightful machines have been a part of our culture since the mid 1910s, and have seen a fascinating resurgence in the nerd/DIY subculture. To construct one is a practice in engineering and creativity, and pure ridiculousness (which I adore).
So who was Rube Goldberg anyway?
I’m so glad you asked! Rube Goldberg was an inventor, author, sculptor, engineer, and cartoonist extraordinaire. He was born in 1883 in San Francisco, and he reportedly started drawing at a very young age. Like good supportive parents would in the end of the 19th century, they told young Rube to knock that drawing crap off and do something better with his time. He subsequently got a degree in engineering from UC Berkeley.
He didn’t completely sell out his dreams of artistry, however. After spending some time working as an engineer for San Francisco’s Water and Sewage Department (sounds like a shitty job to me! *rimshot*), Goldberg realized that his true calling was in cartoons. He joined the newspaper game with the San Francisco Chronicle as an office boy, and after submitting several cartoons to the editor, they finally published him, proving that persistence is the key to success. Persistence, and natural talents.
In 1907, Goldberg moved NYC and hit the big time publishing daily cartoons for the Evening Mail. He eventually got himself syndicated and he became a well known national cartoonist for his style and political messages. Goldberg became the founding president of the National Cartoonists Society in 1946, and it’s annual Rueben award is named after him.
Enough about his background. Tell me about his cartoons.
Goldberg as I said became well known for his style of depicting detailed and complicated systems for accomplishing small tasks. His most famous ones involved a character named Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts and involved explanations of the machines in a schematic style. One of the most famous examples of this is the Self Operating Napkin.
Of course, Goldberg covered a wide range of practicalities for the sensible person in the early half of the 20th century, like a device to keep a hat on one’s head on windy days, a machine for carving a turkey (that involves depressing a rooster), and for all of those women looking to trick men into marriage (what else do we single chicks do with our time?), here is the “No More Old Maids” machine.
Goldberg also applied this same style to his political cartoons as well. He was himself very critical of FDR’s New Deal and depicted it as a punishment to taxpayers.
His political cartoons earned him a Pulitzer in 1948, and some have reported that they also earned him quite a bit of hate mail, though in my research, I have yet to find that validated.
Wow, this is actually pretty funny! But why is he relevant now?
Simply put, Goldberg’s style of machinery has lasted through the decades. If you’ve ever seen one of Tex Avery’s Tom and Jerry cartoons, or Warner Bros. Looney Tunes, you’re likely familiar with a crazy Rube Goldberg machine. It was probably accompanied by Raymond Scott’s song “Powerhouse”(skip to 1:23).
However, these machines are not just rooted in our childhood. People actually use the term in a variety of industries, and it’s an adjective in the dictionary.
Of course you can’t look up anything Rube Goldberg related without winding up neck deep in hipster and engineering nerds. OK Go, well known for their single-shot music videos, featured a Rube Goldberg machine in their video for “This Too Shall Pass.” Additionally, a recent episode of Portlandia, a comedy show on IFC, had a sketch with a kid in a garage building one. If anyone can find video of this let me know. I remember it being mildly funny.
The best part of all this, though, is that there is a national contest for building these crazy machines. Split up for high school and college teams, each team must accomplish the same task in twenty or more steps in two minutes or less. The 2013 task was to hammer a nail into a piece of wood. 2014’s objective will be to zip a zipper. This contest is so damn cool, that I’m seriously considering going back to school just to participate.
Rube Goldberg’s creations hold such a delightful niche in American culture and oddly enough, the British have their own version with a man named Heath Robinson, who actually predates Goldberg by a couple of decades. He too illustrated elaborate machines, but the main differences are that Robinson’s style of drawing was generally more realistic, and his machines as a whole used slightly less bizarre objects. Whether or not Goldberg stole his idea from, or was influenced by, Heath Robinson is certainly up for debate.
However, Rube Goldberg has taught me this: boundless joy and creativity is a wonderful thing, and one should never be afraid of being innovative, unusual, and downright silly.