The name Rube Goldberg has become synonymous with long, gratuitously complex chain-reaction devices that ultimately perform a very simple task. In fact, the name is so associated with this that many people might not know that it once belonged to an individual, much in the same way that some brand names—Band-Aid for example—become so well known that they are used to refer to the generic product and we forget they once were a specific company.
So who was Rube Goldberg? And how did he come to create the wonderfully unnecessary designs for which he is still known today?
Rube Goldberg came into the world on July 4, 1883, an auspicious date for an American kid born in San Francisco. His Jewish family named him Reuben Goldberg, about as Jewish a name as you could get, which—ironically for someone who made their name developing longer ways of performing tasks—became shortened to Rube.
Encouraged by his father Max, who worked as a San Francisco city police and fire commissioner, to become an engineer, Goldberg studied at the University of California, Berkeley’s college of mining. In 1904, after graduating with an engineering degree at the age of 19, Goldberg worked as an engineer for the city of San Francisco’s water and sewage department.
Anyone who’s had a first job after college can probably empathize with what Goldberg did next—which was to quit, after six months. He left the world of sewers and pipes to become a sports cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle. After a few years’ cartooning in his native California, Goldberg decided to try his hand on the East Coast and moved to New York City in 1907.
By 1915, Goldberg was doing well enough that his column became syndicated. This meant that readers of papers around the country were exposed to his work, and Goldberg gained a certain level of national celebrity.
A typical Goldberg cartoon would be a whimsical portrayal of a contraption performing a simple, often everyday task in an amusingly complex way. One such example could be found in (among other publications) the San Antonio Express in April 1922. Entitled “Simple Way To Fish An Olive Out Of One Of Those Long-Necked Bottles,” the main body of the cartoon shows an involved chain of events to do just that, with a key explaining each stage:
“At 6:30 weight (a) automatically drops on head of dwarf (b) causing him to drop cigar (c) which sets fire to paper (d) heat from fire angers dwarf’s wife (e) she sharpens potato knife (f) on grindstone (g) which turns wheel (h) causing olive spoon (i) to dip repeatedly into olives—if spoon does not lift an olive in 15 minutes, clock (j) automatically pushes glass-cutter (k) against bottle and takes out chunk of glass big enough for you to stick your finger in an pull out an olive.”
When Goldberg puts it like that, it all sounds so simple. And it was hilarious because it was relatable. Who in the 1920s didn’t have problems getting olives out of those long-necked bottled—they were the airplane peanuts of their day.
Goldberg’s estimated earnings rose to $100,000 a year in 1922, which was a quite fantastic sum at the time. His nationally syndicated cartoon series “Foolish Questions” and “Sideshow” with their wacky inventions had afforded him wealth and fame. And Goldberg enjoyed his success. He lived on the Upper West Side of New York, at 75th Street and Riverside Drive, where he would socialize with other famous artists, writers and performers.
“They had these wild parties during prohibition and they’d all get sauced,” Goldberg’s granddaughter, Jennifer George told the Wall Street Journal. “They’d line the walls with paper and all the artists would draw all over the walls, and they’d wheel in a piano and the Gershwin boys would play. My father [Rube Goldberg’s son] remembers vividly after one of those parties they brought Charlie Chaplin up to say goodnight.”
By 1931, the cartoonist had achieved sufficient fame for Webster Dictionary to add the term “Rube Goldberg” to its listings, as an adjective defined as “accomplishing by extremely complex, roundabout means what seemingly could be done simply.”
But although he was famous for funny cartoons, Goldberg made serious points in his work. His invention cartoons were a product of his training as an engineer. They were his satirical take on the complex new machines that appeared in order to simply life during the machine age in America. The 1920s and 30s were a time of profound change in industry with fast-changing technological innovation.
The US Patent Office was flooded with (often hair-brained) ideas for inventions to improve life. Paradoxically, of course, consumers were being told that their lives would be made easier and more simple with this increasingly complex the technology. Anyone who, for example, has had to program a VHS, TiVo or similar knows that this is not always the case. Goldberg saw the humor inherent in this paradox. And he also saw the important social commentary.
During World War II, Goldberg’s cartoons took on a more political edge. He attracted a lot of unwanted attention for his political messages, including hate mail, so suggested that his sons change their name from Goldberg to avoid the connection and according to the Wall Street Journal “to escape the anti-Semitism of that era.”
His son Thomas chose the surname George. His second son, whose first name was George, decided to take the same surname as his brother, in order to retain a sense of family unity. Thus was born, at least as a name, George George, Rube Goldberg’s son who became a successful film and theater producer.
After the war, Goldberg received perhaps his highest honor when, in 1948, he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. Goldberg won the award for his political cartoons—the very same political cartoons that attracted hate mail and caused his family to change their name.
The following year, in 1949, two engineering fraternities at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, set up the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest as an inter-fraternity competition. Since 1989, it has been a nation-wide contest held at Purdue University and open to all, which was the subject of the documentary film “Mousetrap to Mars.”
In this way the name Rube Goldberg lives on in the contest, as well as in the dictionary and in popular culture. Yet it is probably the spirit of Rube Goldberg that is most eternal. His cartoons illustrated a belief that people do things the hard way—they always have, always will—yet that sometimes it’s how one does something that is as important as what one does. Often it is the means that count, not the end. And frequently in life, as in a Rube Goldberg cartoon, the joy is in the journey, not the destination.