Rube Goldberg: The Man Behind The Machines

Rube Goldberg: The Man Behind The Machines

From the maddening board game Mouse Trap to that awesome OK GO video (to the hundreds of brilliant contraptions scattered across YouTube), Rube Goldberg machines continue to enjoy a widespread popularity. But who was Rube Goldberg in the first place?

But it wasn’t Goldberg’s social commentary that immortalised his name with geeks everywhere; it was his dear friend Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts.

Goldberg, who had majored in engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, began attributing fantastically elaborate machines (that accomplished comedically simple tasks) to a character named Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, an anagram for Goldberg’s full name. The machines were labelled with letters, like a diagram, and included descriptions of how they were intended to function. Take one Butts’ most famous contraptions, the Self Operating Napkin:

Raising spoon to mouth (A) pulls string (B), thereby jerking ladle (C), which throws cracker (D) past parrot (E). Parrot jumps after cracker, and perch (F) tilts, upsetting seeds (G) into pail (H). Extra weight in pail pulls cord (I), which opens and lights automatic cigar lighter (J), setting off skyrocket (K), which causes sickle (L) to cut string (M) and allows pendulum with attached napkin (N) to swing back and forth, thereby wiping off your chin.

It’s said that Goldberg would spend up to 30 hours designing each machine, carefully plotting out its complex mechanisms. They were borne of Goldberg’s fascination with technology and man’s pursuit of realising its promise – as he said, “the machines are a symbol of man’s capacity for exerting maximum effort to achieve minimal results.”

Rube Goldberg machines quickly inserted themselves into popular culture. In 1931, when Goldberg was in his 50s, Merriam-Webster recognised Rube Goldberg as an adjective that described the process of accomplishing a simple goal by complicated means (and this was long before M-W was in the business of officially adopting words like “bootylicious” and “d’oh!” into the lexicon.)

Back to the Future

And in some comical but essential way, Rube Goldberg machines reflect the fundamental promise of gadgets: to introduce whiz-bang technology into the stale routines of our lives, at best making them more efficient and at worst just making them more exciting. OK, maybe this is finally the time to complete a full game of Mouse Trap. [Rube-Goldberg, Rube Goldberg, Gadgets-Gizmos-Inventions]

Illustration adapted from original by our contributing illustrator Sam Spratt. Check out Sam’s portfolio and become a fan of his Facebook Artist’s Page.

Eureka is our week-long meditation on the wonders of invention, inventors and genius.