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The Rube Goldberg Device

A sketch to a fan by Rube Goldberg.  From left to right: Mike and Ike (they look alike), Boob McNutt, Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, and Bertha.

Max and Hannah Goldberg wanted a bright, secure future for their son Reuben.  Max was the police and fire commissioner for the city of San Francisco in the late 19th century, but rather than civil service, he saw his son Reuben’s future was probably better suited for engineering.  Reuben had shown early talent for drawing, and his parents started paying for professional art lessons when he was eleven, which would certainly be useful for a career as an engineer.  Reuben graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1904 with a degree in Engineering, and went right to work for the San Francisco Water and Sewers Department.  That degree paid off promptly, but just how much it would be worth in the end, no one could even guess.

Reuben was restless, and after six months, he resigned his job with Water and Sewers to take another one with the San Francisco Chronicle.  The Chronicle needed a cartoonist, and Reuben was happy with the work, drawing sports cartoons for the paper.  The next year he moved on to the San Francisco Bulletin, drawing more cartoons.  In 1907, he moved east to take a job with the New York Evening Mail, still drawing cartoons.

The Evening Mail billed Reuben as “America’s most popular cartoonist”.  Whether this could be proven or even measured, he was popular.  His cartoons were enjoying wide distribution through the McClure Newspaper Syndicate, the first newspaper syndicate in the United States.  He was popular enough to be approached by the growing Hearst media empire in 1911 with the generous salary offer of $2,600 a year if he’d join them.  He declined the offer, and just as well.  By 1915, Reuben “Rube” Goldberg was making $25,000 a year drawing cartoons for the Evening Mail.  Hearst tried again, aiming to poach him with a salary offer of $50,000 a year—the equivalent of about $1.2 million in 2018.  Rather than lose Goldberg to Hearst, the Evening Mail matched the salary and their cartoonist stayed on.  The Evening Mail formed the Evening Mail Syndicate with the intention of distributing Goldberg’s cartoons nationally.

A Foolish Questions panel, circa 1915.

Goldberg’s popularity continued to soar.  In 1922, he started working for the McNulty Syndicate, where he produced eight cartoon strips over the next dozen years, typically producing several of them at a time on a daily basis.  Some of them, like Foolish Questions, What Are You Kicking About, Telephonies, are lost to memory, despite their popularity at the time.  His second-best-remembered strip, Boob McNutt, about a cheerful, accident-prone young man, isn’t even remembered all that well.  It was one of Goldberg’s characters, Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, from the strip The Inventions of Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, who did the most to help retain Goldberg’s memory in the public.  Professor Butts’ name might not be on the tips of most people’s tongues today, even though his strip ran from 1914 to 1964, but his fictional accomplishments are still celebrated in many ways.

Professor Butts was an inventor.  He designed elaborate machines to perform simple tasks.  Schematics for these machines would appear in Goldberg’s strips, drawing on his engineering background.

A Rube Goldberg device, first published in 1918.

These machines would become Goldberg’s most popular creations, and what he came to be best remembered for.  In time, the idea would be imitated, with outrageous machines of this type appearing as a staple in animated cartoons.  They also inspired the 1963 board game Mousetrap, in which players would move around the board by rolling dice, all the while building a comically elaborate machine for catching mice.  The winner of the game would get to turn a crank, causing a chain reaction that would eventually bring a cage down on one of the mouse-shaped playing pieces.

Television ad for Ideal's Mousetrap board game, 1963

The term “Rube Goldberg device” has made its way into the modern American lexicon.  Rather than machines, it’s more commonly used to describe ideas that are needlessly complicated and anywhere from difficult to impossible to comprehend.  In an April 3, 2014 opinion piece in the New York Times, Paul Krugman wrote:

“The crucial thing to understand about the Affordable Care Act is that it’s a Rube Goldberg device, a complicated way to do something inherently simple. The biggest risk to reform has always been that the scheme would founder on its complexity.”

While Krugman’s piece on the Affordable Care Act is in favor of the Act, he compares it to a Rube Goldberg device as a criticism.  While Rube Goldberg’s cartoons and their imitators have long been popular, it’s seldom (if ever) a compliment to compare an idea or a system to them.

Perhaps Professor Butts’ most iconic invention: the self-operating napkin (1931)

MAD Magazine’s Al Jaffee drew inspiration from Goldberg’s Foolish Questions cartoons, which he read as a child.

Joseph Herscher invented his own real-life Rube Goldberg device, designed to serve cake at the end of a meal.  SFW three-minuted video of Goldbergian engineering in action!


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