Rube Goldberg with family, 1929


Cartoonist Rube Goldberg’s crazy inventions still resonate in the age of smartphones. Goldberg was a Pulitzer Prize winner who was friends with Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and the Three Stooges, and his legacy lives on with the annual Rube Goldberg Machine Contest; this year’s winners will be announced May 16.

Rube Goldberg (1883-1970) was and is best-known for his crazy cartoon inventions. “Was” because, in his 65-year career, Goldberg was one of America’s most popular personalities—he was far more than a cartoonist—author of more than 70 different comic strips, as well as editorial cartoons (for which he won a Pulitzer), essays, poems, lyrics, short stories, speeches, film and stage treatments and sculptures. “Is” because, long after his death, Goldberg’s name lives on as an adjective in the Merriam Webster dictionary: “accomplishing by complex means what seemingly could be done simply…also Rube Gold-berg-i-an…”

Rube Goldberg in an Advertisement in The Moving Picture World
Rube Goldberg in an advertisement in The Moving Picture World

Goldberg captured the good, bad and ugly of the Machine Age so successfully over the course of his long career that his spirit seems geared to modern sensibilities in 2018. We really ARE ensnared by our machines; if you don’t think so, try looking up from your smartphone once in a while and notice everyone else in the room looking down at theirs.

Case in point: In 1967, at age 84, Goldberg created a cover for Forbes magazine that showed all the members of a family, including the pet cat, sitting in the same room but watching their own private screens. He seems to have, in this and many other similar depictions of the modern fascination with gadgets and machines, presaged the feeling of emptiness people experience if their smartphones or iPods are not within arm’s reach.Rube Goldberg in Forbes Magazine

Not to put too fine a point on it, but there does seem to be something existential in Goldberg’s shadows—the notion of these gadgets suffocating us. He comes right out in one strip and says, “Life is a lot like an acrobatic act…You use up much valuable time and employ the greatest care in rigging up a complicated arrangement for a trick that takes two seconds to perform and nobody knows what it’s all about after it’s over.”

Goldberg’s best-known titles (e.g., “Mike & Ike,” “Boob McNutt,” “I Never Thought of That,” “The Weekly Meeting of the Tuesday Ladies’ Club,” “People Who Put You to Sleep”) were like pebbles tossed in a pond, the ripples from each continuing to carry comedic weight, influencing everyone from the “Usual Gang of Idiots” at Mad magazine to Robert Crumb, whose underground comix characters resemble many in Goldberg’s eccentric casts.

Indeed, Mad’s veteran gag cartoonist Al Jaffee admitted his debt outright, saying that his popular “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” was simply an update of a Goldberg shtick called “Foolish Questions”. (A typical Goldberg routine went, “Playing croquet?” “No Mother, I’m writing a letter on a pancake.”).

Reuben Garrett Lucius Goldberg was born in San Francisco in 1883. His father was a city police and fire commissioner who wanted his son to be an engineer. Alas, the doodling and cartooning bug intervened and, although he went to the University of California in Berkeley to pursue an engineering degree, and even took a job with San Francisco’s Water and Sewers Department upon graduation, he was hooked. After six months, he quit his engineering job when he was hired by the San Francisco Chronicle as a sports cartoonist.

Rube Goldberg with family, 1929
Rube Goldberg with family, 1929

By 1907, he was living in New York, working for the New York dailies. One thing led to another and, well, he never stopped cartooning after that, though his training as an engineer obviously colored the cartooning he did. He would, it’s estimated, publish 50,000 drawings during his long career.

But getting back to Rube Goldberg’s “inventions,” which were always purported to be a “simple device” or a “simple way” to perform a task but turned out to be never less than insanely complicated. His inventions were, in the words of one contemporary, “practical as an icebox in an igloo and twice as funny”.

Rube Goldberg in the New Yorker Magazine

These include such useful contraptions as umbrella alarms, methods of attracting a waiter’s attention, hailing streetcars, licking postage stamps, increasing tire mileage, swatting flies “humanely,” cutting your own hair, putting holes in doughnuts, “getting fresh orange juice upon awakening,” etc. These contraptions reward hours of enjoyable scrutiny, partly because some are so hare-brained that they could very well be real.

He is the inspiration for an annual international competition, the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest. Each year, a simple task is announced and participants are required to make as complicated, and humorous, a machine as possible to accomplish. In the last five years, the tasks have been, apply a Band-Aid, open an umbrella, erase a chalkboard, zip a zipper and hammer a nail.

This year’s contest task is: Pour a bowl of cereal. Winners will be announced May 16.

You can watch some of the contestants at the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest site.

Here is a far more intricate Goldberg-ian attempt to accomplish the nearly impossible:

In his introduction to the 2013 book The Art of Rube Goldberg, Adam Gopnick suggests that Goldberg may have, by osmosis, absorbed the anarchic spirit of Dadaists like Marcel Duchamp with “their love of the mock-machine that looks like a machine but accomplishes nothing…a simple thing done with absurd yet plausible complexity.” There was, in his cartoons, an overriding, perhaps unintended, commentary on the failed or misplaced optimism of the modern world. We became part of the machine, Gopnick says, like the character portrayed by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936).

Most people are familiar with the iconic scene where Chaplin is literally swallowed by a machine, but here’s a scene, from the same movie, where a machine assists Chaplin in swallowing his lunch:

Speaking of whom, Goldberg’s wacky inventions were matched by his wacky friends—Chaplin, all three Marx brothers and all three Stooges were regular guests at his Manhattan townhouse where he held legendary parties also attended by the Gershwins, Fanny Brice and Jack Dempsey.

Goldberg never sat still and had trouble focusing on one thing at a time—no doubt he’d be medicated for ADD today. It was as if his brain was a stuffed attic and what came out of that attic was placed on display in hundreds of newspapers and magazines across the world.

It’s no wonder, then, that the highest honor that is annually bestowed on an American cartoonist by the National Cartoonist Society is called the Reuben Award, named in honor of Rube Goldberg. And, yes, Goldberg even designed the statue that is given to every winner.

The band OK Go created a video, “Rube Goldberg Machine,” to accompany one of their songs: