BERKELEY, CA — 1903 — Einstein was tinkering with the universe, the Wright Brothers tinkering at Kitty Hawk when a UC physics professor debuted the Barolik. Designed to measure the weight of the earth, the Barolik was big enough to fill a lab. With tubes and springs, pipes and wires, it reminded students of “a dumping ground for outmoded dentists’ furnishings.”
The Barolik never worked, but it set one student to dreaming. A dozen years later, after struggling to make a living from comic strips, Rube Goldberg drew “The Automatic Weight Reducing Machine.” The fun starts when cannon (A) fires bullet (B) at rock ©. . .
Goldberg’s device debuted in the New York Evening Mail in 1914. It was a good year for low technology. Henry Ford’s pioneering assembly line was cranking out Model T’s. Frederick Taylor’s time and motion studies were streamlining factories. And kitchens were filling with clever devices, slicing, dicing, enticing cooks to mechanize simple tasks.
Technology was still more servant than master, but Goldberg’s contraption struck a nerve. Within a year he was the best known cartoonist in America. “He just had a limitless supply of ideas,” MAD’s Al Jaffee remembered. “In the teens and 20s, every cartoonist looked up to Rube Goldberg.”
Over the next half-century, this jovial, curly-haired artist with a face only a cartoonist could love became more than a household name. He became a term.
Webster’s: Rube Goldberg, n., 1. Doing something simple in a very complicated way that is not necessary.
Goldberg’s fascination with art and machines began during his childhood in San Francisco. The third child of Jewish immigrants, four-year-old Rube began tracing newspaper cartoons, line for line. Though he had just one art lesson, he dreamt of a career in cartooning. Max Goldberg, however, insisted his son study engineering, so Rube went across the bay to Berkeley. What happened next might be mechanized.
Engineer (A) is hired to design sewers in San Francisco. Reaching for paycheck (B) engineer accidentally grabs newspaper © which has sports cartoons (D). Engineer quits job and joins Chronicle staff, taking huge pay cut to get his foot in the door (E). Door opens with cartoonist’s first strip, “Mike and Ike, They Look Alike” (F). With his father (G) as his agent, cartoonist moves to Manhattan (H). Looking homeward, he remembers a machine. . .
As machines continued to drive modern life, Goldberg marveled at “man’s capacity for exerting maximum effort to achieve minimal results.” Spending some 30 hours to craft each device, he was endlessly inventive. His “Simple Alarm Clock” used “the early bird” (A) to catch a worm (B) that pulls string © to fire a pistol (D). . . Other devices got cotton out of aspirin bottles, posited “A Simple Way to Catch a Fish,” and detected a husband arriving home at 4 a.m. Goldberg soon created his own inventor, Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts. But as the adjective Goldbergian acknowledged, all were the work of the congenial artist with cigar in one hand and pen in the other.
In a career spanning 60 years, Goldberg drew 50,000 cartoons, including regular strips and editorial cartoons that won a Pulitzer Prize. In 1946 he co-founded the National Cartoonists Society whose annual Reuben is still given to top cartoonists.
With ideas spilling out of him, Goldberg also tried stand-up comedy, essays, and in his final years, sculpture. But it was always the machines, the complex, silly, clever machines that made his name.
Some devices also made Goldberg seem prophetic. Charlie Chaplin used Goldberg’s “Self-Operating Napkin” in “Modern Times.” And consider “The Portable Talkie Movie Camera.” When they build one, the caption predicted, “the courts won’t be put to the trouble of deciding who is telling the truth.”
Goldberg died in 1970, just as the Smithsonian opened a retrospective. When tech went digital, his popularity waned, but the Internet revived him. Annual Rube Goldberg design contests, begun at Purdue, have gone national with engineering students designing devices that apply toothpaste, sharpen a pencil, put a lid on a jar. . .
Contests, Youtube videos, a Rube Goldberg app and other spinoffs have made his contraptions as popular as ever. They live on in the children’s game “MousEtrap,” in “Wallace and Grommit,” and in a dozen countries with their own imitators. England calls clever contraptions Heath Robinson machines. In Denmark they are Storm P Machines. . . But there is only one Rube Goldberg and his final word is fitting.
Log onto rubegoldberg.com, the “official website.” When the error message comes up, you can’t help but wonder if Rube wanted it that way.