If you don’t know what a Rube Goldberg is by name, you’d probably recognize one as soon as you saw it. If you’ve ever seen the part of Steven Spielberg’s iconic film, The Goonies, when Chunk does the “Truffle Shuffle” and Mouth finally lets him in the gate using a contraption involving a bowling ball, a balloon, a chicken, and a football, then you’ve seen a Rube Goldberg machine.
If you’ve ever seen the dog-food-can-opening machine in the beginning scene of Back to the Future, then you’ve seen a Rube Goldberg machine. Getting the picture yet? Other notable appearances of Rube Goldberg machines include Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Wallace and Gromit, Chitty Chitty Bang, and Flubber.
As you can see, the phenomenon of the Rube Goldberg machine has had a profound impact on cinema as well as many other forms of media. While they may seem extremely superfluous and extra, I believe that the part of the human mind that’s tickled by the Rube Goldberg machine is the same part of the mind that makes us human.
Indeed, it’s what separates from cold, unfeeling robots: being able to revel in the unnecessary and the irrational. And no man understood that better than legendary cartoonist Rube Goldberg, the namesake of these wacky machines.
Whether you’re old or young, I highly recommend trying to build a Rube Goldberg machine for yourself. It will get you out of the rut of purely rational thinking and allow you to get in touch with the most creative and free-spirited parts of yourself. Yeah, it might be a waste of an hour or two, but I guarantee you’ll have fun and build something you can be proud of.
Let’s take a look at the mad genius behind the Rube Goldberg machine and how this form of expression has progressed over time.
The Man Behind the Machine
Reuben Garrett Lucius Goldberg was born in San Francisco in 1883 to Jewish parents Max and Hannah Goldberg. And while Rube always loved drawing from a very young age, his parents often discourage Rube from pursuing a career in the arts.
As a youth, his only formal drawing lessons came from a local sign designer who he worked for. Rube eventually went on to get an engineering degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and would later get hired by the city of San Francisco as an engineer.
After working in engineering for less than a year, Rube quit and started working as a sports cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Not long after, he moved over to the San Francisco Bulletin. But, in 1907, Rube quit that job and moved to New York City where he worked for several different newspapers and earned national acclaim as a cartoon artist. In 1916, Rube married Irma Seeman and the couple would eventually have two children.
Goldberg’s comic strip Foolish Questions was his first big public hit and, by 1915, he was earning $25,000 per year and was billed as “America’s most popular cartoonist.” In 1916, he created a series of eight animated short films that focused on the hilarity of everyday life.
However, the project that would bring him eternal fame was the cartoon series The Inventions of Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, A.K., which is where he would first publish his illustrations of the convoluted machines that would later bear his name.
The character of Professor Butts was actually based on one of his former university professors named Frederick Slate. Famously, Slate would ask his students to build a scale that could weigh the entire Earth. It was this combination of practicality and absurdity that would ultimately inspire Goldberg to draw his most famous cartoons.
Goldberg seemed to have believed that technological advancement was, in general, oftentimes very unnecessary. In his own words, Goldberg once said, “the machines are a symbol of man’s capacity for exerting maximum effort to achieve minimal results.”
He thought that many of the tasks that people built machines to complete could be accomplished far easier without machines. This ideology had a heavy influence on the cartoons that would eventually come to be known as “Rube Goldberg machines.”
The Rube Goldberg Legacy
On top of the numerous appearances of Rube Goldberg machines in film and television, there are also many competitions for building Rube Goldberg machines, evidence of the lasting impact of the cartoonist’s career.
The most famous of these competitions, the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, originated at Purdue University in 1949 as a competition between two fraternities. The competition went on between the fraternities until 1956 and then got revived in 1983 as a university-wide competition.
The Rube Goldberg Machine Contest was brought to the national stage in 1989 and is now run by Rube Goldberg Inc., a non-profit founded by Rube’s son George W. George. All entries into the contest must have a minimum of 25 steps and a maximum of 75 and be built in the style of Rube Goldberg.
Amazing Rube Goldberg-Inspired Machines
Over the many years that the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest has been running, there have been many incredible entries that all deserve their proper recognition. If you’re interested in seeing some of the spectacular machines that have been entered, you can find videos of many of them on YouTube. But, for convenience’s sake, here are a few of my personal favorites:
This Rube Goldberg machine was the winning entry in the 2018 Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, and it’s easy to see why it took the crown. Just the way that it starts is incredible: you place a metal mug down and suddenly an electrical current creates a vortex in the water.
In actuality, this is pretty much three Rube Goldberg machines in one since it rotates twice to reveal news walls full of wacky moving parts. I also have a soft spot for the part of the machine that involves dumping out a box of Lucky Charms cereal.
If anyone’s going to shatter the Guinness World Record for the longest Rube Goldberg machine, it’s only right that it’s the kooky folks at Purdue University that started the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest in the first place.
Since the machine that broke the record involved a grand total of 244 steps, it was not eligible to be entered in the national contest. However, if it had been entered, I think it’s safe to say it would have won.
Not only is this machine extremely impressive and complicated, but it also has an educational theme, teaching anyone who watches it work a thing or two about nature and evolution.
While many Rube Goldberg machines look like they’ve been thrown together with random household items found in someone’s kitchen, this particle machine that won the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest in 2010 is unique in that it has a very succinct theme to it.
The pyramid, boat, and tiny palm trees make this machine look like a children’s toy that could actually be manufactured and sold in stores. This Rube Goldberg machine is also educational as it tells the story of the events that immediately followed the death of King Tut in ancient Egypt.