Most senior citizens and baby boomers think that Rube was an
eccentric inventor who created elaborate contraptions to accomplish
ordinary, simple tasks. Most of the Generation X group, like myself,
doesn't know whether Rube was real or fictional. Some younger people
have never even heard of Rube Goldberg.
Rube Goldberg was a popular cartoonist whose work appeared in
newspapers throughout the United States from the early 1900s to the
1960s. His drawings included sports cartoons, comic strips and
political cartoons, but he is best known today for the complicated
machines that he drew.
Born in San Francisco in 1883, he earned a degree in engineering
upon his father's insistence. This engineering background served as
a basis for his cartoons of machine contraptions that would take an
easy task, such as swatting a fly, and require at least a dozen
steps to accomplish it. Rube made sure that every one of the
machines in his drawings could work.
Webster's New World Dictionary describes Rube Goldberg as an
adjective: "Designating any very complicated invention, machine,
scheme, etc. laboriously contrived to perform a seemingly simple
To illustrate this point, take a look at a typical Rube Goldberg
invention -- his method for a simple fly swatter -- without the
Carbolic acid (A) drips on a string (B), causing it to
break and release elastic of bean shooter (C), which
projects ball (D) into bunch of garlic (E), causing it to
fall into syrup can (F) and splash syrup violently against
side wall. Fly (G) buzzes with glee and goes for syrup, his
favorite dish. Butler-dog (H) mistakes hum of fly's wings
for door buzzer and runs to meet visitor, pulling rope (I)
which turns stop-go signal (J) and causes baseball bat (K)
to sock fly, who falls to floor unconscious. As fly drops to
floor, pet trout (L) jumps for him, misses and lands in net
(M). Weight of fish forces shoe (N) down on fallen fly and
puts him out of the running for all time. If fish catches
the fly, the shoe can be used for cracking nuts.
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In addition to being a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and an
engineer, Rube was also a sculptor and author, but it was his
cartoons that earned him fame and fortune. Many people think that
the inventor pictured in his cartoons is Goldberg himself, but it
was actually a fictional character that Rube named Professor Butts.
What do Dilbert, Calvin and Hobbes, Garfield, and Bart Simpson
have in common with Snoopy, Blondie, Hagar the Horrible and Beetle
Bailey? Or, to put it another way, what do they all have to do with
Their creators are all past winners of the National Cartoonists
Society's Reuben Award, which is given out annually to the year's
top cartoonist. The "Reuben," as you may have guessed, is named
after Rube Goldberg, the society's first president.
His legacy also includes the various Rube Goldberg machine
contests that are held each year among engineering students, which
honor him by designing machines that use the most complex processes
to complete a simple task.
Rube Goldberg succeeded while tens of thousands of other people
who created cartoons, inventions and sculptures failed to get them
off the ground. Rube Goldberg succeeded by taking an easy task and
telling how to devise a complicated contraption to achieve it.
He died in 1970 at the age of 87. Today, 36 years later, his name
is synonymous with inventions -- even though he was not an inventor
Paul Niemann may be reached at email@example.com.
Copyright Paul Niemann 2006