Rube Goldberg: The Man Behind the World's Craziest Machines

Rube Goldberg: The Man Behind the World's Craziest Machines

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Rube Goldberg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist/cartoonist, engineer and sculptor is probably best known for his far-fetched gadget sketches. Rube Goldberg is the only person, ever, to have been listed in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as an adjective, nonetheless. Over his lifetime, it is estimated he penned over 50,000 cartoons, that's frankly incredible. His distinctive style was centered on his satirism of America's obsession with technology.

Rube Goldberg's most popular drawings depict complex gadgets to "solve" the most rudimentary of tasks. In 1948, Rube was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his cartoon "Peace Today". This famously conveyed a warning against atomic weapons.

Rube Goldberg was also very popular for his satirical political cartoons providing him with a very wide reach. Because of this, during WW2, Rube Goldberg actually received large volumes of death threats for his political pieces. He has been proclaimed the "Dean of American Cartoonists", and as you will see, for good reason.

In the following article, we'll explore his life and times and focus on some of his most beloved works. Enjoy andRube Goldberg, Happy (posthumous) Birthday from Interesting Engineering.

Rube, who now?

We'll get to his life in just a second, but first, if you are not aware of his work, this is probably one of his more famous ones. The Self-Operating Napkin.

[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

This device provides a convenient method of helping you wipe your chin whilst you are busy sating your hunger. The device works through a series of convoluted events to accomplish this very important task. As always we start at point A. Here the spoon is lifted from the soup. This, in turn, pulls string B that throws a cracker, D, into the path of the eagerly awaiting Parrot, E. Obviously the Parrot cannot resist the "crackery" goodness and so predictably jumps for it.

This tilts its perch, F, that drops seeds, G, into a pail, H. The added weight of the seeds in the pail pulls another cord, I, which in turn opens and lights an automatic cigar lighter, J. This sets of a rocket/firework, K, that has a rear mounted sickle, L. This sickle cuts a string, M, that allows a pendulum with a napkin attached to swing back and forth, wiping your chin. Handy.

Overly complex? Yes. Absolutely brilliant solution? Why yes of course. This might seem a little pointless at first. Once you understand the man behind them, it'll all become clear, well sort of. Let's get stuck in.

Early Life

Rube Garret Lucius, aka Rube Goldberg, was born in San Francisco on the 5th July 1883. His father was a police officer for the city as well as a fire commissioner. His parents, Max and Hannah Goldberg, were both German Jewish immigrants. Rube was the third seven children to the couple. Three of which sadly died at a very young age. His older brother, Garrett, younger brother Walter and younger sister Lillian were his surviving siblings.

Rube Goldberg's interest in the arts developed at a very young age. He spent a lot of time tracing illustrations as young as the age of 4. This love turned a real passion by the age of 8. He was a prolific "doodler" throughout his early childhood and went on to attend structured classes in drawing at the age of 11.

After completing his schooling at Lowell High School in 1900, Rube Goldberg was considering his future studies. He continued pursuing his dream career in the arts. His father had other ideas and convinced Rube to study Engineering at the School of Mining Engineering at UC Berkeley. He went on to graduate from UC Berkeley with a degree in Engineering in 1904.

[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]


After graduation, Rube Goldberg took on a position designing sewer pipes for the San Francisco Water and Sewers Department. He spent his brief time here designing sewer pipes. Unsurprisingly this didn't last too long, he lasted six months. Rube Goldberg followed his passion and began to shift gears to pursue his previous dreams and pursue a career as a cartoonist.

This was a decision that would ultimately garner him a huge fan base in years to come. Soon after he joined the San Fransisco Chronicle as an art assistant in 1906. The next year, Rube Goldberg joined the San Francisco Bulletin. He spent his time as a sportswriter and cartoonist, a position he held until 1907. The same year, Rube Goldberg, launched a comic series entitled "Mike and Ike" a series about identical twins. This strip didn't become an instant success, much to Rube's disappointment. He didn't let this dissuade him though and remained stoic. His faith in his work finally paid off. Eventually, it became a huge success with the readership.

That same year, he moved to New York and began freelancing for a few publications. He was soon noticed and was hired by the New York Evening Mail. Here he created three long-running comic strips, of course. It was here that he began a single panel comic called "Foolish Questions". This proved very popular and ran from 1908 to 1934. It famously featured sarcastic responses to obvious questions. He also authored and released a book of the same title in 1909.

More strings to the bow

Rube started performing stage appearances alongside fellow cartoonists in 1911. Here he started performing as a comedian in Vaudeville. To top it all Rube Goldberg also stretched his writing abilities by becoming a playwright in 1914. Most definitely not a one trick pony it seems. The very same year, Rube, began working on his next comic series "Inventions!". The timing for this series was perfect as Americans were starting to witness an explosion of new technology during the "Age of Inventions".

It was during this period of time that Rube Goldberg made an important observation. In his eyes, many people seemed to be solving simple problems with overly complex contraptions. This, it wouldn't surprise you to hear, was his main inspiration for the "Inventions!" series. The most famous of which has come to be known as the Rube Goldberg Machine. This was actually an illustration of an "Automatic Weight-Reducing Machine".

During his time at the New York Evening Mail his works received a very large audience. The Mail was after all syndicated to the primary newspaper syndicate in the US, the McClure Newspaper Syndicate. Such was the exposure his work received that by 1915 he was widely acclaimed to be one of the most famous cartoonists in America. Not bad.

His fame grows

Unsurprisingly, he quickly started to get the attention of many well-known newspaper chains. He even received many offers to join them. The McClure Newspaper Syndicate offered him a staggering, at the time, $50,000 per year to join them. Interestingly they had tried to headhunt him back in 1911 with a much more modest $2,600 per year. The Mail, rather wisely, decided to raise his salary to match the offer and even formed the Evening Mail Syndicate to give Rube Goldberg's work and audience throughout the country.

In 1915, Rube Goldberg decided to try his hand in the silent movie business. He started a project drawing cartoons, but after realizing the scale of work involved, he quietly dropped it. Rube realized he simply could not complete it under his own steam without help. He later created the cartoon Boob McNutt the same year. This comic was later syndicated by the Star Company. It was very successful, with a large loyal fan base and ran until 1934.

[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

Rube married Irma Seeman in 1916. The couple went on to have two children Thomas and George.

Rube shifts gears, again

In 1934, Rube Goldberg decided to shift his focus from cartoons to magazine writing, for a little while at least. He quickly realized the error of his ways and returned to cartooning with earnest. Rube Goldberg took a position as editorial cartoonist for the political newspaper New York Sun. He stayed with them until his retirement in 1964. It was here at the New York Sun that Rube earned his Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for one of his works in 1947.

During the war, Rube insisted his sons change their surname owing to the hate mail and death threats aimed at him personally. These were in response to his political satire during the period.

Rube Goldberg, with fellow cartoonists, founded the National Cartoonists Society in 1946. He also became the first President of the Society, a position he held for 2 years. Rube finally put down his pen in 1964 but didn't seem to enjoy retirement. He decided to become a sculptor, as you do. Rube sadly passed away on the 7th December 1970 at Hawthorne, New York at the ripe old age of 87. A man greatly missed. So much so in fact that his grandchildren founded and manage an organization in his honor, Rube Goldberg Incorporated.

Rube Goldberg awards and achievements

As previously mentioned Rube was recognized for his work in 1948 when he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. This was for his thought-provoking work "Peace Today". It perfectly sums up the fears of the world after the second world war, a feeling that continued through the cold war and still exists today.

[Image Source: Copyright Heirs of Rube Goldberg/Courtesy Abrams Books via CBS]

In 1955, Rube Goldberg received the Gold T-Square Award for his vast contributions to art. His accolades didn't end there. Four years later Rube Goldberg was further honored with the prestigious banshee's Silver Lady Award. This award recognizes fresh and original artwork. Just prior to his untimely death, well he was 87, he received the Reuben Award for Best Cartoonist of the year. This award was given to him by the National Cartoonists Society and more importantly was an award named in his honor.

Interesting trivia

Rube Goldberg is the only cartoonist to be listed in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as an actual adjective. The phrase "Rube Goldberg" has been adopted into common use to mean "doing something simple in a very complicated way that is not necessary". Cool.

In 1995, The US issued a commemorative stamp featuring Goldberg's self-operating napkin cartoon.

Interestingly many films and cartoons have included "Rube Goldberg" themed devices in their storylines. The likes of Looney Tunes, Sesame Street, Tom and Jerry, American Dad!, Family Guy and Home Alone series of films are prime examples. Go on see if you can find them!

Goldberg's legacy

As previously mentioned, Rube's name has been used in print as an actual adjective. Quite incredible. Initially, the adjective "Goldbergian" was adopted into common use and appeared print by as early as 1915. This later evolved to "Rube Goldberg" by 1928. In the UK, the corresponding term was, and still is though less frequently used, "Heath Robinson". He was an English illustrator who had an equal fascination with odd machinery portrayed in a similar fashion to Rube's works.

In 1962, none other than John Wayne starred in a movie inspired by Rube's work, Hatari! The film featured an invention to catch monkeys using a rocket net described as a "Rube Goldberg". Educational shows throughout the 1960's and 1970's routinely included Rube Goldberg's devices. Notably The Rube Goldberg Alphabet Contraption, and the What Happens Next Machine.

The similarity in Rube's work and fantastical devices seen in the likes of Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (yes we just said that), even Back to the Future is no coincidence. The Bravery's 2005 video to "An Honest Mistake" actually features the band performing inside a Rube Goldberg machine, oh and a lot of dominoes.

Work hard, play hard

Board games and video games have also been inspired by the works of Rube Goldberg. Mousetrap is a prime example. Yup, it all makes sense now right? The 1990's series of The Incredible Machine games, Freddi Fish 2: The Case of the Haunted Schoolhouse involve the need to search for missing pieces to a Rube Goldberg machine. Nice touch.

Rube even got in on the game, no pun intended, in 1909. He developed the "Foolish Questions" game based on his cartoon of the same name. The game was very popular and had many versions between 1909 and 1934.

Rube's mind made manifest

It's quite incredible, and a testament to Rube Goldberg, that his work is still fondly remembered today. To such an extent that, inevitably, some maniacs decided to actually build some of his devices. As you can imagine, they were intended to be rather impractical and building one practically impossible. They would require a level of skill and patience far beyond anything Rube Goldberg could create. You'll likely also not be surprised that many stubborn fellows have decided to make them a reality.

Here are some fantastic examples. Take a deep breath some of these are mind boggling. Can you imagine the kind of contraptions Rube could create and animate today? In his dearly missed absence we'll settle for the following amazing examples.

Time Machine

Purdue University decided to take Rube's ideas and make them their own. They built a "time machine" of sorts that tracks the history of the world from the big bang to the apocalypse. It was built in 2011 and actually broke the record for the most steps successfully completed by a machine. Good effort.

The Page Turner

You've probably seen this one bandied about the internet of late. Created by Brooklyn artist Joseph Herscher, this really captures the spirit of the genius of Rube Goldberg. Rube would really congratulate Joseph on the overly complex solution to the "problem" of turning a page. Kudos.

Toy Factory

This one is absolutely fantastic. Unlike others featured here, it is highly complex and compact. A perfect combination. The sheer astounding complexity of it, plus the use of old toys, is a must watch. Rube would surely have been overjoyed to have seen this contraption in action, and so are we. Brilliant.

Honda's The Cog

You may or may not remember this advert. The genius behind this advert really brings Rube Goldberg's message to a new generation. Satisfying to watch and even more satisfying to know that this is actually a homage to a great cartoonist. You'll never be able to watch it the same way again. You're welcome.

Ok Go music video

Combining music and fantastical contraptions must surely be a match made in heaven. Holding true to Rube's message, OK Go did him proud. Starting with Dominoes, surely a given nowadays, the video reaches its climax with band members shot in the face with paint. Of course!


Well, it was an inevitability really wasn't it? Using a plethora of Diet Coke and Mentos and Buster the Crash Test Dummy, this was a must do "myth bust". This was a Christmas Special present to fans and Rube Goldberg's legacy, all at the same time. Absolutely fantastic.

Christmas Tree Lighter

The Guinness Book of World Records has quite the plethora of Rube Goldberg inspired devices. It seems the temptation to build larger, ever more complex devices is just too strong to ignore. This one uses a large amount of marbles, appliances and power tools to light up a Christmas Tree. Why of course.

The Breakfast Machine

There is nothing more frustrating than having to physically hold your toast to eat in the mornings. Our old friend Joseph is back with this incredibly useful, if not highly overcomplicated solution. Now having seen it how could you not build one of your own? Think of all that time and energy you'll save on your busy mornings. Perfect, simply perfect.


Well, Rube Goldberg would certainly approve of this fantastic contraption. He would appreciate that a simple task, like taking a photo, really does justify and overly complex solution. As is quickly being established, dominoes are an essential component, not to mention marbles. Excellent work chaps, truly excellent.

Even Minecraft isn't safe

The beauty of Minecraft is that it is, on the surface, a very simple game. But the level of complexity a dedicated player can produce within it is limited only by your imagination. With this in mind, it was only a matter of time before some genius decided to build a Rube Goldberg inspired machine. Making good use of water, switches and even lava. We defy you not to enjoy this one.

Want to build your own?

You can go the whole hog and actually try to replicate one of his logic-defying devices out of real stuff. Alternatively, take inspiration from the man himself or from some of the cheeky monkeys above. You can also jump online and visit Make a Rube Goldberg Machine. Here you'll find a vast repository of ideas to get you started. Just choose a simple task and then brainstorm ways to perform in the most outrageously complex method possible. Be sure to document and film and upload to the web for all to celebrate your solution.

There is even a Rube Goldberg app available to download here (this is for iOS but it is cross platform). This is a great game that really challenges you to build your very own virtual Rube Goldberg Machine. Absolutely fantastic, why would you need any other game on your smart device? Why not have a crack, you could use it to "model" a real life device you might fancy building later.

The final word

Brilliant, simply brilliant, what more can we say? His drawings have stood the test of time and still inspire young and old today. Rube Goldberg was a legend in his own time and is still well loved today. There is no doubt Rube Goldberg has been one of the most influential cartoonists in history and his influence pervades many aspects of our modern world.

His combinations of comedy and invention are timeless. It's always important to mildly mock society at large, to do so in such a "high-brow" and entertaining way is sadly very rare today. His works were a mark of his time but could equally be applied to our current modern society. Rube Goldberg, we salute and honor your memory. Thank you.

Have you been inspired to build your own? What is your favorite of his "inventions"? Have you seen any great examples of "real-life" machines on the net? Comment and share below.

Sources: RubeGoldberg, CoolMaterial, TheFamousPeople, Biography

SEE ALSO: Ingenious Rube Goldberg Machine Made from Marbles and Magnets

Watch the video: Almost Everything Weve Ever Made in One Rube Goldberg Machine (June 2022).


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