Send a link to a friend

"The little-known stories behind well-known inventions"

Did Rube Goldberg ever invent anything worthwhile?          By Paul Niemann

[JULY 27, 2006]  Who was (or is) Rube Goldberg? Is he still alive? Was he a real person or a fictional character?

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 operation."

To illustrate this point, take a look at a typical Rube Goldberg invention -- his method for a simple fly swatter -- without the drawing:

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.

[to top of second column]

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 Rube Goldberg?

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 himself.

[Paul Niemann]

Paul Niemann may be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2006

[Other columns]

< Recent articles

Back to top


News | Sports | Business | Rural Review | Teaching & Learning | Home and Family | Tourism | Obituaries

Community | Perspectives | Law & Courts | Leisure Time | Spiritual Life | Health & Fitness | Teen Scene
Calendar | Letters to the Editor