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Rube Goldberg: The Man And His Zany Machines

People | August 3, 2019

A typical Rube Goldberg machine, with levels, hammers, and rolling balls. Source: (fatherly.com)

We know all about Rube Goldberg machines—those crazy, overly complicated contraptions designed to perform one simple task—but how much do we know about Rube Goldberg, the man? Did you know, for example, that he was a cartoonist, not a physicist? And did you know that he is the only person whose full name is listed in the dictionary as an adjective? How much do we really know about the man whose name is forever attached to the needlessly complicated, comic machines? Let's look at Rube Goldberg and his zany machines. 

Rube Goldberg received an engineering degree from University of California, Berkeley. Source: (engineering.berkeley.edu)

Rube Goldberg, the Early Years

Born in San Francisco on Independence Day 1883, Reuben Goldberg always preferred his childhood nickname, Rube. He loved to draw as a young boy, but his parents discouraged it. They hope he would pursue more academic interests. Therefore, after he graduated from high school in 1900, he earned an engineering degree from UC Berkeley in 1904. He started his career as a civil engineer for the city of San Francisco, but he continued to draw as a hobby, honing his skills as an artist. After a short time, he quit his engineering job to work as a cartoonist and sports illustrator for a few local newspapers. 

Drawing one of his classic machines. Source: (illustrationhistory.org)

Rube Goldberg, the Cartoonist

Although Rube Goldberg started out as a sports cartoonist, his creative and well-drawn cartoons caught the attention of editors in other departments. He moved from California to New York City and worked as a political cartoonist for several of the New York area newspapers. His work received national acclaim, but it wasn't without controversy. During World War II, he was receiving hate mail and death threats because of the views voiced in his political cartoons. He was so concerned that he had his wife and children change their last names to hide their identity. 

Goldberg's first cartoon featuring a Rube Goldberg machine and Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts. Source: (allthatsinteresting.com)

Rube Goldberg and Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts

In 1914, Rube Goldberg debuted his most memorable cartoon character and the one responsible for making Goldberg's name a well-known adjective, Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts. Drawing on Goldberg's time as an engineering student, this comic strip featured the hilarious professor and his elaborate inventions. The drawings—schematics, really—showed a simple task being completed by a complex machine that included simple levers, pulleys, and chutes. Readers loved to see these contraptions. 

Two teens work on final details of their cake decorating machine, a Rube Goldberg machine that will ice a cake in 20 steps. Source: (Photo by STORMI GREENER/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

Inspiring Inventors

Goldberg's engineering degree enabled him to create zany machines that looked feasible. Naturally, people wanted to see if they could replicate these inventions or invent some of their own. Most of the components of the Rube Goldberg machines were common household items like kitchen utensils, boots, ropes, and steaming teapots. Generations of future engineers, physicists, and inventors learned to love the field of mechanics by building their own Rube Goldberg machines as children. 

How to change the TV channel before the invention of the remote control. Source: (boomboxpost.com)

Rube Goldberg's Machines are a Pop Culture Staple

As early as the 1930s, filmmakers (and later, TV producers) regularly included Rube Goldberg--type machines in various scenes. They were often used in comedies or to depict the works of a brilliant genius that were needlessly complicated. It didn't take long for people to refer to these elaborate, multistep machines as "Rube Goldberg machines" and to anything that is far more complicated than it should be as "Golbergian." Today, Rube Goldberg remains the only person whose first and last name together form a dictionary entry, an adjective that means "having a fantastically complicated appearance and/or something that is complex and impractical." The 1990 movie Home Alone features a typical Rube Goldberg machine, as do The Goonies, Back to the Future, and The Money Pit. They can also be seen in cartoons, including Spongebob Squarepants and The Simpsons

The board game, Mousetrap, is really just a Rube Goldberg machine. Source: (aadl.org)

The Rube Goldberg Legacy

Although Rube Goldberg was an award-winning cartoonist, the first president of the National Cartoonist Society, and the namesake for the highest honor in cartooning, The Reuben Award, most people don't remember his cartoons as much as they remember the zany machines he drew. Without him, we would not have the popular children's board game Mousetrap, and high school physics students wouldn't have the only fun classroom assignment of the semester. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.