Rage Against the Rube Goldberg Machine

By | Mar 08, 2023
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A little red toy car hits a domino, causing a clickety-clack cascade that eventually tugs a string, which releases a ball that rolls down a chute and hits another ball, which rolls across the floor and into a box… Even if you’ve never heard the term “Rube Goldberg machine,” you’ve probably seen lots of them throughout your life without knowing what they’re called. Think of the classic mid-century board game Mousetrap, the Acme Corporation contraptions that Wile E. Coyote built to try to catch the Road Runner, or the epic paint-splattering video the rock band OK Go made to promote its single “This Too Shall Pass.” Odes to Rube Goldberg machines are everywhere.

 Goldberg himself, however, has largely been forgotten. America’s first Jewish comedy superstar, he drew Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoons that tickled the country’s funny bone enough to make him famous. In 1912 he started illustrating a series of overly complicated mechanisms for everyday tasks such as slicing bread and swatting flies. He wanted to poke fun at the spirit of Yankee ingenuity that pervaded the early 20th century. He knew technology couldn’t fix everything that was wrong with modern life, and he wanted to take his era’s tinkerers down a peg.

It didn’t take long for Goldberg’s cartoons to leap off the page and start inspiring real-world wacky apparatuses, built with the same good-natured humorous spirit. Over time, however, those inventions have become distinctly less Goldberg-like. They have become fully-functioning, precision machines: icons of engineering ingenuity rather than criticisms of it. Tech bros, whiz kids and trick-shot artists have taken them over, treating his drawings like blueprints for increasingly outrageous stunts, then boasting about their prowess on viral videos. The values embedded in his work seem to be lost, and they might be more necessary than ever.

 The Original Tech Boom

Goldberg was born on July 4, 1883, right on the cusp of the country’s first great technology boom, in which America’s original tech bros—Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Samuel Morse and the Wright Brothers chief among them—started to transform everyday life. He grew up in San Francisco, which at the time was home to the second-largest population of Jews in America. He taught himself to draw by tracing the cartoons in humorist Edgar Wilson “Bill” Nye’s History of the United States, then took lessons from a sign painter to learn technique.

Goldberg’s stern father pressured his son to give up art for the Army, but the young illustrator refused. As a compromise, he agreed to study mining engineering a few miles away at the University of California, Berkeley. After the Gold Rush, mining was a valuable occupation in California, which satisfied his father. The fact that some of the greatest artists in history had also been engineers—including Leonardo da Vinci, who drew a few machines himself—helped seal the deal for Goldberg.

At Berkeley, Goldberg studied analytical mechanics with Professor Frederick Slate, who was infamous for having built “the Barodik,” a bizarre assemblage of hoses, springs, pulleys and scrap metal that could measure, with some experimental error,  the weight of the Earth. Most students laughed at Slate’s mechanism, but Goldberg was inspired, though not in the way his professor would have preferred.

My Son, the Cartoonist

Once he graduated, Goldberg took a position with the San Francisco Water and Sewers Department but soon quit to pursue his passion for art. After a stint doing illustrations for the sports page of the San Francisco Chronicle, Goldberg left the West Coast for New York, where he rose through the ranks of the Evening Mail until he earned a recurring slot for his cartoons. His first big hit was a feature called Foolish Questions with dialogue tuned for the sarcastic tastes of the Mark Twain era. “Is there something the matter with your foot?” a woman asks a man using a crutch and holding up an enormously bandaged foot in “Foolish Questions No. 9.” “No,” the man replies, “this is just the latest style in footwear.”

Cartoon by Rube Goldberg

Foolish Questions may not seem terribly funny in 2023, but in the early 1900s it was the talk of the town. The Daily Mail put up billboards advertising Goldberg’s cartoons, and soon they were syndicated nationwide. (Goldberg’s father, who finally understood and appreciated his son’s career, helped with the syndication deals.) Before long, Foolish Questions became a book and board game, too.

By the early 1910s, Goldberg was America’s most famous cartoonist, with several daily comic strips, including Lala Palooza, Boob McNutt, Bobo Baxter and Mike and Ike (They Look Alike), which depicted the comic adventures of a pair of identical twins. (Maynard Frank Wolfe’s biography of Goldberg contends that one is Irish and one is Jewish, the inability to tell them apart intended to create unity among immigrant communities.) He even netted a corporate sponsor for his strip Pepsi and Pete. His extensive body of work gave Goldberg fame and fortune, but one strip in particular gave him immortality.

Pictures of Butts

The main character in Goldberg’s The Inventions of Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts bore a strong resemblance to a figure from the cartoonist’s past: Professor Slate from UC Berkeley. Goldberg formatted each comic in the series like a patent application for a convoluted Barodik-like contrivance, complete with step-by-step instructions for a simple activity such as washing dishes or making toast.

Those gizmos are what we now call Rube Goldberg machines. Their creator, as quoted in Wolfe’s biography, thought of them as “symbols of man’s capacity for exerting maximum effort to accomplish minimum results.” Goldberg’s explanation makes perfect sense, given the fact that at the time, everyday tasks were being utterly transformed by new American inventions such as the bottle cap (1892), the zipper (1909) and the fly swatter (1915).

Goldberg may have been intending to lampoon the can-do spirit of his era’s tinkerers, but there’s also something unmistakably Jewish about his Professor Butts series. “It reminds me of the casuistry of the Talmud,” says Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, co-author of The Big Book of Jewish Humor. The rabbis of the Talmud are legendary not only for their wisdom, but also for using Rube Goldberg-esque logic to interpret passages of the Torah—or, as Waldoks calls it, “Dreying around till you get where you want to get to.”

Back to the Future

Goldberg never intended for his machines to be built. They were utterly ridiculous, and they wouldn’t have worked. He did, however, play a part in bringing what might be the first real-world Rube Goldberg machine to life. In his one and only feature film screenplay—for the 1930 movie Soup to Nuts that (incidentally) introduced America to the Three Stooges—his main character is an inventor who builds laughable thingamajigs, several of which were constructed as comic props. The film flopped, but the door for future contraptions was thrown wide open.

In 1963, the Ideal Toy Company introduced a board game called Mousetrap in which players cooperate to construct a three-dimensional Rube Goldberg machine, then compete to try to catch each other’s mouse-shaped game pieces with it. The rickety apparatus involved a shoe, a bathtub, a marble and a seesaw, among other elements, all forged out of cheap plastic. Half of the fun was the nail-biting ordeal of getting the trap built without accidentally setting it off. When you did set it off intentionally, as part of the game, it didn’t always work.

Mousetrap’s creator, a Jewish toy designer named Marvin Glass, admitted that he was inspired by Goldberg, though according to Bill Paxton’s A World Without Reality: Inside Marvin Glass’s Toy Vault, Glass never paid Goldberg a dime in royalties. With its laughable, impractical complexity, the board game, which is still being sold 60 years later, really does capture the spirit of the artist’s illustrations.

In the decades since Mousetrap’s debut, similar comic homages have also appeared in several movies: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Goonies, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Back to the Future, just to name a few. For the most part, though, after Mousetrap, Rube Goldberg machines took a serious hairpin turn.

The Domino Effect

For a brief moment in the late 1970s, America went wild for a new pastime: domino toppling. Kids would line up their parents’ dominoes, standing them on end, then tipping the first one over, causing a chain reaction. If the craze had a hero, it was Bob Speca, who toppled his way into the Guiness Book of World Records not only by assembling dominoes in extraordinary numbers, but also by figuring out how to make them do Rube Goldberg-like tricks.

Toppling was serious business. There was no room for failure. One poorly placed domino could ruin an entire display that might have taken days to assemble. There was aesthetic pleasure to be had by watching an elaborate domino configuration collapse, but Golberg’s silliness and sarcasm were nowhere to be found.

At around the same time, science museums across the country also started to take Rube Goldberg machines seriously. Many of them added “kinetic sculptures” in which a number of ball bearings bounced, twisted and rolled their way through intricate paths, revealing the laws of mechanics in ways that made physics seem fun. Like domino toppling, these ball bearing machines weren’t intended to achieve any mechanical goals: merely to entertain and educate.

By contrast, the devices built by Macaulay Culkin’s character Kevin McCallister in the 1990 film Home Alone—which was so full of complex mechanisms that Rube Golberg’s ghost deserved a writing credit—definitely did have a clear life-or-death goal. They were contraptions worthy of Professor Butts’s best thinking. They differed from Rube Goldberg machines, however, in one very important way: They all worked.

The New Tech Bros

When Goldberg was lampooning technological advancement, he had mechanical constructions like the traps Kevin set for the Wet Bandits (played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) very much in mind: paint cans swinging down from banisters and a blow torch rigged to go off when a door opened. Kevin, however, was merely a kid. Goldberg’s Professor Butts was a mechanical engineer. At roughly the same time as Home Alone premiered, the engineering profession was radically transformed by the advent of the personal computer and advancements in computer-aided design.

As technology transformed, so did the era’s Rube Goldberg machines, which became finely tuned, precision-engineered marvels. None exemplified that transformation more than the contraption featured in a 2003 Honda ad called “The Cog.” The 120-second spot featured the disassembled components of a Honda Accord pinging into one another in an astonishing sequence of elegant moves until the car’s key fob closes the hatchback of a second fully built car. The ad has only one line, spoken in Garrison Keiller’s rich voice as the new Accord rolls into view: “Isn’t it nice when things just work?”

That ad marked a major turning point in the history of the Rube Goldberg machine. What had started out as a joke that mocked harebrained inventors had officially been commandeered by the inventors themselves. Their vice had become a virtue worthy of celebration. In fact, the aforementioned 2010 OK Go video, which depicted what might be the first viral Rube Goldberg machine of the 21st century, ends with a shot of the machine’s engineering team cheering their own success.

A century after Goldberg conjured up Professor Butts, his metaphorical descendants started building more and more outrageous machines. A former NASA engineer named Mark Rober built an autonomous robot to assemble dominos for toppling, a glitter bomb to catch package thieves and an Olympic-level squirrel maze in his backyard. A teenager named Cree Ossner constructed a 70-step “Swish machine” to put a basketball through a hoop and—perhaps inspired by Rober—a squirrel-feeding apparatus that starts with a squirrel toppling dominoes.

In other words, Generation X grew up playing Mousetrap and understood that Rube Goldberg machines weren’t always going to succeed at catching rodents. A generation later, Millennials decided to build a better mousetrap and use it to feed rodents instead. And what of subsequent generations of Rube Goldberg machine makers? For the most part, all many of them seem to care about is setting up beer-pong-like trick shots to earn clout on social media.

OK Joe

There is, however, one contemporary artist whose work does embody Rube Goldberg’s original spirit: Joseph Herscher. A Jewish, New Zealand-born, London-based artist, Herscher builds contraptions that, like Professor Butts’s, are designed to accomplish everyday tasks such as eating lunch and mixing cocktails. The videos of his machines in action are irreverent and silly—they don’t take themselves seriously as inventions—but they do have plenty to say.

One masterpiece, which Herscher calls The Cake Server, involves a claw hammer stopping millimeters short of smashing a laptop. Instead, the hammer initiates a video call, which sets a nearby cell phone ringing. The cell phone, which happens to be tethered to the laptop, attracts the attention of a baby, whose innocent grabbing yanks the laptop off a table, smashing it anyway.

“People like to see something that’s not digital,” says Herscher. “What I do is grounded in physics and analog movements.” Some of those movements embody our simmering rage against the digital era we live in. We are all babies in some sense, they seem to say, subject to the power of Big Data.

The new machines taking over the world at the dawn of the 20th century were threatening our humanity. “Goldberg was making fun of all the new technologies and how silly they were, making our lives apparently simpler,” says Herscher, “but actually not simpler.” By contrast, in the 21st century—as we all tinker with chat-bots, suffer through AI-powered call centers, and experiment with self-driven cars that diminish our agency and individuality—machines like Herscher’s remind us of the necessity of our humanity.

Rube Goldberg would undoubtedly approve.


Opening image: Copyright United States Postal Service

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