Rube Goldberg

by John Delach

Brain freeze, a senior moment, memory lock; call it what we will. They are annoying and frustrating to say the least. Recently, I awoke thinking about goofy inventions or ideas and for the life of me I couldn’t recall the tag commonly used to refer to them. I knew it was a person’s name but other than that…a complete blank. Shout out to the internet. A quick trip to Google, type in, “Name for goofy inventions,” and as if by magic: “Rube Goldberg.”


Here is my dictionary’s definition: “Adjective: accomplishing by complex means what seemingly could be done simply – example: A kind of Rube Goldberg contraption.”


Not clear enough? Here is an expanded explanation: “A Rube Goldberg machine is a contraption, invention, device or apparatus that is deliberately over-engineered to perform a simple task in a complicated fashion. Over the years it has expanded to mean any confusing or complicated system. For example, news headlines include: Is Rep. Bill Thomas the Rube Goldberg of Legislative Reform? and Retirement Insurance is a Rube Goldberg machine.”


Mr. Goldberg (1883-1970) was a prolific cartoonist who drew over 50,000 cartoons and comic strips. While he is most remembered for his wacky ideas, he did have a serious side.  He earned a Pulitzer Prize for the cartoon: “COLD WAR: 1948, Peace Today.” It pictures a post-World War II American suburban home perched on top of an enormous atomic bomb. A couple sits outside in their yard under an umbrella oblivious to living on a bomb or that the bomb is teetering over an abyss labeled “World Destruction.”


However, it is the concept expressed in his serendipitous cartoons and explanations that define him in the American experience. Copyright restrictions prevent me from reproducing one of his classic cartoons, the “Self-Operating Napkin.” Please allow me to attempt to explain the image:


Professor Butts sits at a table before a bowl of soup, spoon in hand. He is wearing a collar around his head that supports a number of platforms. These platforms hold various objects including a parrot, a pail, a cigarette lighter, a sky rocket and a pendulum holding a napkin. The pendulum is attached to the bottom of a clock and held in place by a string.


A different string is attached to the professor’s soup spoon.


As he raises the spoon of soup to his mouth, the motion jerks the string launching a cracker in the direction of the parrot. Parrot jumps after cracker spilling seeds from its perch into the pail. The extra weight pulls another string opening and igniting the lighter setting the rocket’s fuse on fire. As the rocket takes off, a sickle attached to it cuts the string holding the pendulum in check. The pendulum, now free, swings back and forth with the movement of the clock’s second hand thereby wiping off the professor’s chin. Mr. Goldberg noted in his caption: “After the meal, substitute a harmonica for the napkin and you’ll be able to entertain the guests with a little music.”


Confused? Look up: “Rube Goldberg’s Self-Operated Napkin.”


While the expression: Rube Goldberg is unique to North America, Wikipedia notes that the concept is fairly widespread. In Australia, wacky machines are called Bruce Petty. In Austria, they are known as Franz Gsellmann, in Great Britain, Heath Robinson contraption, and in Denmark, Storm P maskiner, after Robert Storm Petersen. All were cartoonists. Similar expressions exist in India, Japan, Spain and Turkey, named after characters created by local cartoonists.


Goldberg lives on in annual contests held in various locations across the United States. Foremost are MIT’s “Friday After Thanksgiving” (FAT) competition and Purdue University’s National Rube Goldberg Machine contest. The FAT event brings together amateur teams who erect elaborate chain reaction machines that are linked together in a string.


Other contests like Purdue’s create annual themes where school teams compete to create the best device to accomplish the task in a minimum of at least 20 steps. Past challenges have included: devices that sharpen a pencil, adhere a stamp to a letter, assemble a hamburger or screw a light bulb into a socket.


Rube Goldberg machines can be found in movies, puzzles video games and board games such as Mouse Trap. No doubt fascination with wacky devices is permanent and future “what ifs”  are  only limited by our imagination.