Know Thy History: Rube Goldberg

Rube Goldberg is one of the most accomplished cartoonists in history. He was a founding member and first president of the National Cartoonists society. He won a Pulitzer Prize for political cartooning in 1948. In 1959, he won the Banshee’s Silver Lady Award.

Goldberg was a highly prolific busybody. He drew cartoons for five papers, including the New York Evening Journal and the New York Evening Mail. He was responsible for several cartoon series with colorful titles like Mike and Ike (They Look Alike), Boob McNutt (some sort of comic about a porn star, I’m guessing), Foolish Questions, Lala Palooza (no relation to the music festival), and The Weekly Meeting of the Tuesday Women’s Club (no relation to The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency … I think).

Late in his career, Rube Goldberg took up sculpting. It turned out he was good at that, too. In fact, he was so good that one of his pieces won him his first ever Rueben Award … which, incidentally, was named after him. The statuette used for the award, in fact, is based on one of Goldberg’s pieces.

Goldberg also worked a little in film. Hr wrote a feature film called Soups to Nuts which starred the Three Stooges. He was a man of many talents, too many to list here In fact, there seems to be a fairly big thing he’s known for that I’m forgetting. Was it the US postage stamp series that commemorated the cartoonist? No, that’s not it.

Oh, wait… that’s right.

He’s the man who invented the “Rube Goldberg machine.”

Seriously, man, when you’re name is actually in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, then chances are you did something right. And when it’s accompanied by this definition…

accomplishing by complex means what seemingly could be done simply

… then you did something really, really right with your life.

Mr. Goldberg’s professional career began as an engineer. He graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. Over at Toonopedia, Don Markstein mentions that this is where Mr. Goldberg got his inspirations:

The cartoonist said his inspiration came from a college professor whose class he’d taken more than a decade earlier. Professor Frederick Slate, who taught a course in analytical mechanics, had built an incredibly complex device for measuring Earth’s mass, which he dubbed the Barodik. Goldberg, an engineering major, was thinking of Slate’s improbable mass of quasi-identifiable parts when he drew his “Automatic Weight Reducing Machine” in 1914, for The New York Evening Mail. It used such elements as a lump of wax, a bomb, a helium balloon, a red-hot stove and a donut rolling down an incline, to trap the overweight individual in a sound-proof, food-proof prison until he loses enough weight to wriggle free.

Methinks that Mr. Goldberg and I are kindred spirits, since, frankly, doodles of elves and ogres in the notebook margins during my Statics and Dynamics classes were the only things keeping me awake there.

Goldberg went on to work at the City of San Francisco Water and Sewers Department, but he found that sort of employment to be a little … down in the dumps. (Sorry, a little water waste treatment humor there.) That lasted about six months. He then went to work at a paper in San Francisco as an office boy, where he would keep sending in cartoons to his editor until they finally saw print. Afterward, Mr. Goldberg moved to New York and tried his luck getting his cartoons published there.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The strip’s inventions were attributed to the unseen Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, which is proof positive that Rube Goldberg could never really get his head out of the sewer. The strips would start off with a simple premise, like an alarm clock for example.

Sure, you could have a tiny hammer banging against two bells that’s activated by a gear system… but where’s the fun in that? What you really need is a bird that pulls a string, which in turn shoots a pistol, which burst a balloon, which drops a brick on a perfume atomizer, which sprays a sponge, which is attached to string that pulls up a lever, which drops a cannonball on the sleeper.

Ah, but I’m sure you’re already saying, “But what about the failsafes, El Santo? What… about… the FAILSAFES?” My dear reader, you think Rube Goldberg picked up that engineering degree at Berkeley for nothing? See, there’s also a string tied to the cannonball, which pulls a cork to a bottle mounted above the sleeper’s head, which splashed the sleeper with cold water should the “conk our sleeper with a heavy object” method fail.

Now that, dear readers, is SCIENCE!

OK, so waking up is all well and good, but want if you forgot your lighter at nome really needed to smoke a cigar? No problemo. Drive your car over fifty miles per hour and make sure that cop chasing you hits that cat!

Need something to turn the page while you’re playing your clarinet? Heck, a goldfish, a hatrack, and a boxing glove should do the trick!

How many times have you seen a rug that needs to be rolled, and you told yourself, “There’s got to be another way!” It’s simple as long as you got a tramp and a circus elephant!

Want to simplify your taxes? All you need is a dog running on sheer patriotism!

OK, that last one’s really simple, but Mr. Goldberg did pick up that award for political humor. Let’s face it, though: if modern day political cartoonists would stop lazily labeling giant hippos with country names and instead show our Senate getting the boot from an elaborate contraption that employs rubber chickens, slingshots, and a hopper full of ball bearings — then I think we can all agree agree that political punditry would be in a much better place.

Rube Goldberg is what you wanted engineering to be; crazy contraptions where boots, gloves, and trained animals — not hydraulic actuators or sliding ball screws or programmable logic controllers — got things moving. Goldberg never built any of the machines he drew. That hasn’t stopped modern engineers from trying. There’s a high school level National Contest at Ferris University in Big Rapids, MI. The college level nationals are held on that engineering sacred ground at Purdue University in Lafayette, IN. Past challenges have had attempts at dispensing hand sanitizer into a hand, assembling a hamburger, and toasting a slice of bread.

And, of course, there’s that OK Go video, where the band worked with Syyn Labs to convert a two-story warehouse into a fully functional Rube Goldberg machine to spray paint on our intrepid pop stars:

From one engineer to another: thank you to Rube Goldberg for making engineering awesome.


About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on September 6, 2011, in comics, The Webcomic Overlook. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. A “Rube Goldberg device” has also become a writing term used in regards to screenplays. It’s when you set up a trivial piece of plot in Act I and it grows and grows throughout the whole script, eventually becoming the main story by the time Act III roles around. The term obviously stems from the man and his machines… just thought I’d share.

  2. I’ve heard a lot about Rube Goldberg, but never actually seen any of his devices before. Go figure that. His work reminds me a lot of W. Heath Robinson, who I guess could easily be described as Rube Goldberg’s English counterpart. My father had a book of his cartoons when I was a child, and they’ve never stopped delighting me.

    • Wow… it is very similar! Thanks for the links! I hadn’t heard of W. Heath Robinson before now, but those online galleries connected to the Wikipedia piece are pretty addictive.

  3. Teaching simple machines to 4th graders this past year, we discussed Rube Goldberg’s and each kid drew one. We watched the OK GO video as well, which was pretty fun.

  4. Hah, quite a backstory on the fellow awesome he ended up doing what he loves most. Got any info on his personal life? Say; any creative failures or other pursuits?

    • Only what I could find on the internet. Even that information tends to be conflicting. For example, Toonopedia says Rube Goldberg went to the California College of Mining, while says he graduated from Berkeley and worked the city water system. (Maybe the College of Mining is part of Berkeley? Possible.) There is a book out on his life somewhere which is super-expensive on; likely less so in the library, though.

  5. It’s great how hilarious patriotism dog still is, it has the absurdist humor that seems so popular with us kids nowadays.

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