I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Rube Goldberg’s Elaborately Eccentric Machines

by Jessie Brown
May 28, 2012

There aren’t many who could claim that their name is also an adjective, but the maverick American cartoonist and inventor Rube Goldberg was one. ‘Rube Goldberg machines,’ as they were known, were devices that showed simple actions being carried out in the most convoluted way possible. In an RG machine, inanimate objects, gadgets, animals, people and whatever else could be thrown in to the mix were all utilized for the sake of carrying out one simple task. RG machines won a nation over with their screwball silliness and continue to appear throughout popular culture today.

Born in California in 1883, Goldberg was trained as an engineer before he decided to turn to his artistic talents to make a living instead, landing a series of cartoonist jobs first in San Francisco and then New York. He was a prolific talent and his success as a political cartoonist resulted in him winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1948. Goldberg’s flair for satirical sketches together with his background in engineering resulted in a series of cartoons that featured schematic drawings of overly complex inventions. These became hugely popular and went on to dominate his life’s work and become his trademark.

The Sesame Street alphabet contraption probably best demonstrates to the uninitiated, what the essence of a Rube Goldberg machine is. In a linear cartoon, the letters of the alphabet are revealed through a chain of random sketches featuring, amongst other things, rabbits, birds, penguins, people, dinosaurs, toucans and baseball players. It’s a charming sketch, which is beautifully nonsensical. Learning was never so bewilderingly fun as this. Kids also get an early introduction to Rube Goldberg through the ever-popular game ‘Mousetrap’ which revolves around trapping a mouse through highly convoluted means. As the narrator of this Mousetrap sketch points out, no one actually wants to play the game, they just want to see the rad Rube Goldberg machine in action.

In a sketch entitled ‘Something for Nothing’ from 1940, Rube Goldberg provides some insight into his fantastical world as he draws inventions such as the ‘door opener-upper’ and ‘perpetual motion machine’ in a bid to get ‘something for noting’ as apparently is the motive for most inventions. The film was in fact a subtle advert for Chevrolet, claiming that their cars got the most they could out of gasoline. Nevertheless, it’s a great insight into Goldberg’s idiosyncratic way of thinking and prodigious talent as a cartoonist.

Though Rube Goldberg died in 1970, his legacy very much lives on, transcending different national cultures and cropping up in popular culture mediums as diverse as advertising, games, TV, film and music videos. The Coca-Cola ad reveals how corporate America appropriated the Goldberg method for their own means, perhaps not something that Goldberg would have approved of.

Never more does a Rube Goldberg concept seem more at home than in a Japanese game show where a mandatory over-excited host screams over the top of an elaborate Goldberg-esque device that grows in enormity along with the presenter’s enthusiasm. It’s fair to say that the winning team on this show take the Rube Goldberg concept and run with it brilliantly incorporating fire, bowling balls and boiling noodles into their contraption. The absurdity of Rube Goldberg’s ideas fits perfectly with the bizarre wacko world of Japanese game show TV. Likewise, an RG machine suits 1983 Kung-Fu comedy Shaolin Drunkard where Goldberg-esque choreographed scene helps in hamming up the weird but hilarious slapstick tone that seems to underpin the fim.

Most recently, the band OK Go really took the Rube Goldberg approach to a whole new level in the video for their track ‘This Too Shall Pass’. The RG machine they’ve developed sweeps through an entire warehouse starting small, but rocketing up in size and complexity, resulting in falling pianos, chair dominoes, band members on zip lines, wayward cars and smashed TVs, only to result in the band getting splattered in paint as the finale. As intended by the band, the video went on to become a viral hit, being viewed a staggering 25 million times. The whole video is quite a feat and Goldberg would surely have approved. One can only imagine the number of run-throughs the production team must have had to do until the machine would work perfectly in one take. The pile of smashed up TVs and the somewhat weary expression of the band throughout the video is something of a clue.

It seems a Rube Goldberg machine is really a universal concept. There’ve been different readings into Goldberg’s ideas over the years. Some claim he was satirizing man’s addiction to technology, others have said he was commenting on our overly complicated world. Whether he had an overarching message or not, there’s just something incredibly appealing about how elaborately pointless an RG machine is. It doesn’t make any sense to convolute a simple task but the detail and charm that goes into an RG machine makes it brilliant.

Though Goldberg died over 40 years ago, the continuing popularity of RG machines in our culture, whether it be advertising, TV or music videos, reveals how much he tapped into the human psyche. Furthermore his legacy still lives on in the various international Rube Goldberg contests that happen every year, where people build and compete with their own RG contraptions. In a society where technology rules over us and there’s now an app to make everything simpler, it’s good to know that Goldberg’s style of complex nonsense lives on.

Jessie Brown is an east London refugee currently residing in Berlin.  At any given moment she is likely to be planning for, experiencing or writing about music festivals, clubbing, or travelling. She enjoys flea markets and gets overly-enthusiastic about obscure techno records.