Rube Goldberg: The Mind Behind the World's Best Useless Machines

A journalist, cartoonist, engineer, and sculptor, Rube was an influential figure in 20th century.
Christopher McFadden

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

Rube Goldberg's most popular drawings depict over-complex gadgets intended to "solve" the most rudimentary of tasks. In 1948, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his cartoon "Peace Today" which conveys a warning against atomic weapons.

Goldberg was also very popular for his satirical political cartoons, providing him with a very wide reach. Because of this, during WW2, he 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!

Who is Rube Goldberg?

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."

rube goldberg cartoons
Source: Rube Goldberg/Wikimedia Commons

This device provides a convenient method of helping a man wipe his chin whilst he is too busy satiating his hunger to simply use his napkin himself. The device pictured works through a complex series of convoluted events to accomplish this very minor 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 the chin. Handy.

Overly complex? Yes. Absolutely brilliant solution? Why yes, of course. Once you understand the man behind this and other complex 'devices', it will all become clear — well sort of.

What was Rube Goldberg's early life like?

Rube Garret Lucius, aka Rube Goldberg, was born in San Francisco on the 5th of July, 1883. His parents, Max and Hannah Goldberg, were both German Jewish immigrants. His father was a police officer for the city, as well as a fire commissioner. Rube was the third of seven children for the couple.

Three of his siblings would sadly die at a very young age. His older brother, Garrett, younger brother Walter, and younger sister Lillian were his surviving siblings.

rube goldberg machines contest
A modern-day Rube Goldberg machine contest. Source: Penn State/Flickr

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 into a real passion by the age of 8. He was a prolific "doodler" throughout his early childhood and took some lessons from a professional sign painter. At the age of 12, he won first prize at his school for a drawing called, The Old Violinist.

After completing his schooling at Lowell High School in 1900, Goldberg was considering his future studies. He wanted to continue pursuing his dream career in the arts. His father had other ideas and convinced Goldberg 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.

What did Rube Goldberg do for a living?

After graduation, 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 took a job at the San Fransisco Chronicle as a sports cartoonist for one-third of the salary his engineering job paid.

Shortly afterward, Goldberg moved to New York, a place he called, “the front row." After taking a train across the country, he landed a job at The New York Evening Mail, where he created a variety of comic strips and single-frame cartoons, including "Boob McNutt," "Lala Palooza," “Mike and Ike—They Look Alike” and "Foolish Questions." all of which would become nationally syndicated.

life and times of rube goldberg
Source: Internet Archive/Wikimedia Commons

"Foolish Questions" in particular proved very popular, and ran from 1908 to 1934. It famously featured sarcastic responses to obvious questions. The series was tremendously popular, with readers sending in their own foolish questions. He also authored and released a book of the same title in 1909, along with merchandise, such as Foolish Questions playing cards.

Goldberg started performing as a standup comedian in 1911, later touring with a comedy troupe for a vaudeville show, and slapstick would become one of his biggest influences. He also stretched his writing abilities by becoming a playwright in 1914. He was not a one-trick pony, it seems. The very same year, Goldberg began working on his next comic series "The Inventions of Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts." 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. In it, he turned seemingly useless tasks into complicated machines (for example, in one, there’s a 20-step way to brush your teeth).

The most famous of these "inventions" has come to be known as the Rube Goldberg Machine. This was actually an illustration of an "Automatic Weight-Reducing Machine."

Goldberg’s "invention" even made it to Hollywood. He created similar machines to be used in movies, such as the 1936 Charlie Chaplin film Modern Times. Much later, his machines were featured in blockbuster films, including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, where a statue of Abraham Lincoln flips pancakes (which end up stuck to the ceiling).

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. 

When did Rube Goldberg become famous?

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 $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 Goldberg's work a national audience. Once the cartoons were syndicated by national newspapers, he was reaching an audience of millions, and earning a reputed $200,000 a year in 1922 — a tremendous sum of money at the time. 

rube goldberg machine example
Example of current-day Rube Goldberg machine. Source: martin gautron/Flickr

In 1915, Rube Goldberg decided to try his hand at the silent movie business. He started a project drawing cartoons for a film, but after realizing the scale of work involved, he quietly dropped it. He 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 and loyal fan base, and ran until 1934.

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

Rube shifts gears, again

In 1934, 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 earnestness, although now he had a new focus on political cartoons. In 1938, he became a political cartoonist for the New York Sun newspaper, producing weekly cartoons on topics including the rise of fascism, political corruption, poverty, and conflict in the Middle East. A 1947 cartoon titled “Peace Today,” shows a nuclear bomb balanced on a precipice; it won him a Pulitzer Prize.

He stayed with the New York Sun until 1949, when he left to become a cartoonist for the New York Journal, where he stayed until his retirement in 1964, at the age of 80

In 1946, Rube Goldberg, along with fellow cartoonists, founded the National Cartoonists Society. He also became the first President of the Society, a position he held for 2 years. Goldberg finally put down his pen in 1964, when drawing became difficult, but he was still drawn to art. So he decided to become a sculptor.

When did Rube Goldberg die?

Goldberg sadly passed away on the 7th of December, 1970 at Hawthorne, New York at the age of 87 — much to his fan's great regret.

So much so in fact that his grandchildren founded and manage an organization in his honor, Rube Goldberg Incorporated.

rube goldberg work
Source: 995577823Xyn/Wikimedia Commons

Rube Goldberg awards and achievements

As previously mentioned, Goldberg was recognized awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1948. 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.

In 1955, Rube Goldberg received the Gold T-Square Award for his contributions to art. The 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 death, 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.

Some interesting facts about Rube Goldberg

Rube Goldberg is the only cartoonist to be listed in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as an 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".

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

rube goldberg machine example
Source: Argonne National Laboratory/Flickr

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 the Home Alone series of films featuring some prime examples.

What is Rube Goldberg's legacy?

As previously mentioned, Goldberg's name has been used as an actual adjective. Initially, the adjective "Goldbergian" was adopted into common use and appeared in print as early as 1915. This later evolved to "Rube Goldberg" by 1928. In the UK, the corresponding term which was, and still is, frequently used is "Heath Robinson". Robinson was an English illustrator who had an equal fascination with odd machinery, portrayed in a similar fashion to Goldberg'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" device. Educational shows throughout the 1960s and 1970s routinely included Rube Goldberg devices. Notably, The Rube Goldberg Alphabet Contraption, and the What Happens Next Machine.

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

What games were inspired by Rube Goldberg's machines?

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 goldberg competition
Example entry from the 2006 Ribe Goldberg National Competition. Source: BJWisch/Flickr

Goldberg 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.

What are some interesting examples of Rube Goldberg machines today?

It's quite incredible, and a testament to Goldberg himself, that his work is still fondly remembered today. To such an extent that, inevitably, a number of people have dedicated themselves to building Goldberg's devices, or similar contraptions. 

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.

1. Purdue University's "Time Machine" is pretty cool

rube goldberg machine purdue
Source: Purdue University

Purdue University decided to take Goldberg'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.

2. "The Page Turner" is fascinating to watch

You've probably seen this one bandied about the internet at some point. Created by Brooklyn artist Joseph Herscher, this really captures the spirit of the genius of Rube Goldberg. If he were around today, Goldberg would probably congratulate Herscher on the overly complex solution to the "problem" of turning a page.

3. The "Toy Factory" is a brilliant piece of kit

This Rube Goldberg machine 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. Goldberg would surely have been overjoyed to have seen this contraption in action, and so are we. Brilliant.

4. Honda's "The Cog" is probably the best known Rube Goldberg machine

rube goldberg the cog
Source: Honda

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.

5. Ok Go's have a Rube Goldberg machine in one of their videos

Combining music and fantastical contraptions must surely be a match made in heaven. Holding true to Goldberg's message, OK Go did him proud. Starting with dominoes, a popular component of many home-made Rube Goldberg machines, the video reaches its climax with band members being shot in the face with paint. Of course!

6. Mythbusters made a Rube Goldberg machine too

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 to the legacy of Rube Goldberg', all at the same time. Absolutely fantastic.

7. "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 number of marbles, appliances, and power tools to light up a Christmas Tree.

Why of course.

8. "The Breakfast Machine" is another great Rube Goldberg 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 over-complicated 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.

9. "Photobooth" does exactly what it says on the tin — just in a very circuitous way

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

10. 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 the imagination. With this in mind, it was only a matter of time before some genius decided to build a Rube Goldberg-inspired machine in Minecraft. Making good use of water, switches, and even lava. We defy you not to enjoy this one.

How do you make a Rube Goldberg machine?

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. Or, you could find ideas online too. Just choose a simple task and then brainstorm ways to perform in the most outrageously complex method possible. Be sure to document it by filming it and uploading the video to the web for all to celebrate your solution.

rube goldberg machines example
Source: Penn State

There is even a Rube Goldberg app available to download here (it's available on Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, and iOS). 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.

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.

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