13 Ingenious Facts about Rube Goldberg

You turn a fan on, and the air blows a tiny toy sailboat until it hits a domino, causing a chain reaction as hundreds of dominoes are knocked down. As the last domino falls, it pushes a lever that triggers a sharp blade to swing, cracking an egg onto a griddle. An overly elaborate contraption that accomplishes a simple task—in this case, cooking an egg—is an example of a Rube Goldberg Machine.

It's named for inventor and cartoonist Rube Goldberg, and although you’ve most likely seen funny sequences inspired by Goldberg’s machines in films, TV shows, music videos, and comics, you probably don’t know much about his life. In honor of his birthday, here are 12 ingenious facts about Goldberg.

1. HE EARNED AN ENGINEERING DEGREE FROM UC BERKELEY…

Born in San Francisco on July 4, 1883, Goldberg enjoyed drawing as a child and took art lessons from a sign painter. After studying engineering at UC Berkeley, he graduated in 1904 and mapped sewer pipes and water mains for the city of San Francisco. “I studied engineering because my father thought that all cartoonists were, you know, good-for-nothing, Bohemians, and couldn't make a living drawing pictures,” Goldberg revealed in a 1970 interview with Radio Smithsonian.

2. …BUT QUIT HIS JOB TO BECOME A CARTOONIST.

After just six months of work, Goldberg knew that engineering wasn’t the right fit for him. So he worked as a sports cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle before moving to New York City to be a cartoonist at The New York Evening Mail. Some of the comic strips and single-frame cartoons he created had names like "Boob McNutt," "Lala Palooza," and "Foolish Questions." Because his cartoons were nationally syndicated, he became famous and was extraordinarily well paid.

In the mid 1910s, he started illustrating complex contraptions, including a machine that automatically reduced a fat man’s weight and a sanitary way to lick a postage stamp. Between 1929 and 1931, he drew his absurd machine inventions for a series called “The Inventions of Professor Lucifer G. Butts,” which was inspired by his experiences in college engineering classes.

3. ONE OF HIS POLITICAL CARTOONS WON A PULITZER PRIZE.

In 1948, he won a Pulitzer Prize for a political cartoon called "Peace Today," in which he depicted the precarious balance between world control and destruction due to the atomic bomb. In a separate political cartoon (shown above), he drew a Rube Goldberg Machine to criticize President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s strategy to fix the economy by creating multiple governmental agencies.

4. BECAUSE OF HATE MAIL HE RECEIVED, GOLDBERG CHANGED THE LAST NAMES OF HIS CHILDREN.

The Goldberg family in 1929. Wikimedia Commons

Goldberg and his wife, Irma Seeman, had two sons, George and Thomas Goldberg. During World War II, Goldberg, who was Jewish, was publishing a good amount of political satire; he began receiving large amounts of hate mail, which included numerous death threats. To safeguard his sons, Goldberg decided to change their last names. When Thomas, his older son, chose the last name "George," Goldberg's younger son, George, decided to choose the same surname so that the brothers would have a cohesive family name. Thus, Goldberg's sons became known as Thomas George and George W. George. 

5. HE WROTE A FILM FOR THE THREE STOOGES BEFORE THEY WERE FAMOUS.

Twentieth Century Fox hired Goldberg to write a script for a feature film involving his complex machines. After writing in Hollywood for three months, the film came out in 1930. Called Soup To Nuts, the film wasn’t hugely successful, but it starred a pre-fame Three Stooges. Before they were Moe, Larry, and Curly, the vaudeville group consisted of four men who called themselves Ted Healy and his Stooges. Besides Healy and his Stooges, Soup To Nuts featured machines such as an anti-burglar device and a self-tipping hat.

6. HE WENT TO JAIL FOR REFEREEING A FIGHT IN HARLEM.

Goldberg admitted that he went to jail once, during his early years as a cartoonist for The New York Evening Mail. While covering fights for the newspaper, another sports writer would occasionally earn extra money refereeing the (illegal) fights. Goldberg accompanied him to cover a fight in Harlem and ended up keeping time since he was the only person there with a stopwatch. Before long, cops raided the fight and arrested Goldberg for being the timekeeper. An older fighter from the ring paid Goldberg's $500 bond.

7. HIS NAME IS AN ADJECTIVE IN THE DICTIONARY.

In 1931, Merriam-Webster immortalized Goldberg by putting his name in the dictionary. According to Merriam-Webster, Rube Goldberg is an adjective that means "doing something simple in a very complicated way that is not necessary." Speaking about his unexpected fame, the cartoonist later said: "I incorporated those [chain reaction machine inventions] in my regular cartoons and, for some reason or other, they were taken up. They stood out and I'm typed as an inventor; I'm a crazy inventor … and my name is in the dictionary and I'm very pleased." According to Goldberg’s official website, he’s the only person in history to be listed as an adjective in Merriam-Webster (as just the name alone, as opposed to namesake adjectives like, say, Shakespearean or Machiavellian).

8. AT 80 YEARS OLD, HE BECAME A SCULPTOR.

Most people don’t begin entirely new careers in their 80s, but Goldberg decided to take up sculpture. “I just bought some clay, and some sticks, tools and all, and I didn't know you had to use an armature [a wire frame around which sculptors build the clay],” he told Radio Smithsonian. He viewed sculpting as a natural continuation of his engineering and cartooning work, and he even got commissions for his work. Goldberg molded busts of politicians, authors, and friends, and he had shows of his work in New York and California. In 1970, the Smithsonian's Museum of History and Technology featured an exhibition of his career; Goldberg died in December of that year at age 87.

9. THE REUBEN AWARD FOR CARTOONISTS IS NAMED AFTER HIM.

Musicians have Grammy Awards, actors have Oscars, and cartoonists have Reubens. Since 1954, the National Cartoonists Society has awarded the Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year to a top cartoonist. Named after Goldberg, whose full name was Reuben Garret Lucius Goldberg, the award itself is a statue based on one of his sculptures. He later joked that the trophy looked grotesque, and although the award is named after him, it took him 22 years to win one himself.

10. HE GOT HIS OWN U.S. POSTAGE STAMP.

Goldberg’s black and white cartoon of a man using a self-operating napkin became a U.S. postage stamp in 1995. The colorized stamp shows the steps involved in the contraption: the man raises a spoon to his mouth, and a napkin wipes his mouth after a series of steps involving a string, ladle, cracker, parrot, seeds, cup, cord, clock lighter, and sickle.

11. EACH YEAR, TEAMS COMPETE IN RUBE GOLDBERG MACHINE CONTESTS.

Since 1988, teams of students have competed each year in Rube Goldberg Machine Contests to build machines that evoke the spirit of Goldberg. Teams compete for prizes such as Best Design and Funniest Step (one step being a transfer from one action to another). Prior winners have built elaborate contraptions to zip a zipper, water a plant, erase a chalkboard, and open an umbrella.

12. YOU CAN USE AN APP TO CREATE A DIGITAL RUBE GOLDBERG MACHINE.

To try your hand at creating your own (digital) Rube Goldberg machine, download the Rube Works app on your phone. As the first officially licensed Goldberg game, Rube Works allows players to build machines to achieve simple goals, such as getting a glass of orange juice. The game incorporates puzzles, illustrations, physics, and logic, challenging players to build functional machines to get to the next level.

13. HIS FAMILY MEMBERS CONTINUE HIS LEGACY.

In the late 1980s, one of Goldberg’s sons started Rube Goldberg, Inc. (RGI), a company that keeps the cartoonist’s legacy alive via licensing and merchandising. RGI also hosts Rube Goldberg Machine Contests, created the official Rube Works app, and promotes science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics education. Today, Jennifer George, Rube’s granddaughter, serves as the company's legacy director and recently published a book on his work.

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George Barratt-Jones, Vimeo
This Crafty Bicycle Can Knit a Scarf in 5 Minutes
George Barratt-Jones, Vimeo
George Barratt-Jones, Vimeo

Knitting can be a time-consuming, meticulous task, but it doesn’t need to be. At least not if you’re George Barratt-Jones. As The Morning News spotted, the Dutch designer recently created a human-powered automated knitting machine that can make a scarf while you wait for your train to arrive.

The Cyclo-Knitter is essentially a bicycle-powered loom. As you pedal a stationary bike, the spinning front wheel powers a knitting machine placed on top of a wooden tower. The freshly knitted fabric descends from the top of the tower as the machine works, lowering your brand-new scarf.

Cyclo Knitter by George Barratt-Jones from George Barratt-Jones on Vimeo.

“Imagine it’s the midst of winter,” Barratt-Jones, who founded an online skill-sharing platform called Kraftz, writes of the product on Imgur. “You are cold and bored waiting for your train at the station. This pedal powered machine gets you warm by moving, you are making something while you wait, and in the end, you are left with a free scarf!”

Seems like a pretty good use of your commute down-time, right?

If you're a fan of more traditional knitting methods, check out these knitting projects that can put your needles to work, no bicycle required.

[h/t The Morning News]

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THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images
6 Works of Art That Were Hiding in Plain Sight
An ancient angel mosaic on a wall of the Church of the Nativity
An ancient angel mosaic on a wall of the Church of the Nativity
THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this year, an 1820 facsimile of the Declaration of Independence turned up in Texas. Despite once being owned by James Madison, it had been shuffled among the papers of a family who eventually forgot about its provenance and came to consider it "worthless," at least until its recent authentication. As one of only 200 facsimiles created by printer William Stone, it was a rare document, but what made headlines was a curious footnote in the document’s journey: It had been hidden behind wallpaper during the Civil War as protection.

There’s something tantalizing about a precious object concealed by wallpaper or painted over; it suggests treasures might be hiding anywhere—maybe in our own homes. Here are a few stories of art that's been lost, and found, on the same wall, hidden beneath wallpaper, paint, and plaster.

1. ANGEL MOSAIC // PALESTINE

Conservators who began restoring the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2013 after centuries of neglect were prepared to clean its mosaics from years of soot and grime. They weren’t expecting to find new ones.

Using a thermographic camera, one restoration worker noticed a shape in the plaster walls. When the team started chipping off the material, they found the brilliant glow of mother-of-pearl tiles. Soon an 8-foot-tall angel was revealed, dressed in a flowing white robe, its golden wings and halo as luminescent as when they were installed in the Crusades era. It’s believed that the angel was covered up following an 1830s earthquake, perhaps to hide damage. Now the lost seraph (above) has rejoined the procession of radiant mosaic angels who are walking to the nativity along the church’s historic walls.

2. MEDIEVAL MURALS // WALES

Mediaeval wall paintings, Llancarfan church, Wales
Chris Samuel, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

During the Reformation, the murals in Catholic churches of the British Isles were often covered with plaster, turning them into more austere Protestant spaces. In covering them so entirely, this art was sometimes inadvertently protected from centuries of decay. In 2010, conservators announced an incredible find in the 800-year-old Church of St Cadoc at Llancarfan in Wales.

Church staff had long been intrigued by a thin red line of paint on the wall. After conservators began the painstaking work of removing 21 layers of limewash, a dramatic painting of St. George slaying a dragon appeared. The discoveries continued with scenes of other popular medieval motifs, such as the Seven Deadly Sins, a royal family, and "Death and the Gallant," in which a rotting corpse with a worm creeping in its rib cage leads an elegantly dressed man to his mortal end. The murals are now on view for all to enjoy.

3. BRETON GIRL SPINNING // FRANCE

Paul Gauguin, "Breton Girl Spinning"
Paul Gauguin, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Now at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, French artist Paul Gauguin's 1889 Breton Girl Spinning is an enigmatic fresco of a young girl dancing at a small tree. In one hand, she is spinning wool; in the distance, above the water and shapes of ships, a huge angel with a sword is flying. In part because of this angelic figure, the painting is sometimes called Joan of Arc.

The work was painted right on the plaster dining room wall of La Buvette de la Plage, an inn in Brittany, France. After being forgotten under layers of wallpaper, it and two other murals (one by Gauguin and one by his student Meijer de Haan) were rediscovered in 1924 during some redecorating.

4. MAYA MURALS // GUATEMALA

While updating their kitchen around 2007, Lucas Asicona Ramirez and his family in the Guatemalan village of Chajul discovered some old interior design—Maya murals, hidden for centuries beneath the plaster.

The roughly 300-year-old artworks in the colonial-era home featured figures in both Maya and Spanish attire, representing a moment of European arrival. One may be holding a human heart, or possibly a mask used in a dance. Ramirez hopes to turn the room into a museum, but needs more funding. Other households in Chajul also have historic murals in their homes, and some are striving to conserve these memories of their ancestors even while local preservation resources are limited.

5. WILLIAM MORRIS RED HOUSE MURALS // ENGLAND

The 19th century British artist and writer William Morris is celebrated for his textiles, writing, wallpaper, and other work in the Arts and Crafts movement. The house in Bexleyheath, Kent, that architect Philip Webb designed for him and his wife Jane in 1859 was intended not just as a home, but an incubator for art. The "Red House" became a hub for like-minded artists, and Morris founded “The Firm”—which produced decorative objects such as stained glass and furniture—there in 1861 alongside several other artists. However, the Red House community was short-lived, and financial difficulties forced the family to move out in 1865, never to return.

When the National Trust acquired the house in 2003, they found that the group had left behind some of their artistic experiments. Behind a wardrobe, under layers of paint and wallpaper, the trust made a most extraordinary find: a full wall of almost life-size biblical figures. Researchers believe they were collaboratively painted by Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his wife Elizabeth Siddal, and Ford Madox Brown, all of whom were major artists in the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

6. AMÉRICA TROPICAL // UNITED STATES

Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros had just been expelled from Mexico for his leftist activities when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1932. Local boosters commissioned him to create a mural on the theme of "Tropical America" on the touristy Olvera Street, which was an idealized vision of a Mexican market, but he had no interest in portraying some folkloric fantasy. “For me, 'America Tropical' was a land of natives, of Indians, Creoles, of African-American men, all of them invariably persecuted and harassed by their respective governments,” he said in a 1971 documentary.

His América Tropical: Oprimida y Destrozada por los Imperialismos, or Tropical America: Oppressed and Destroyed by Imperialism, was a moody landscape with gnarled trees clawing at a Maya temple. At the center, an indigenous man is crucified, with an American eagle ominously descending over his head. Innovative techniques such as airbrushing gave the tableau a visceral edge.

The 18-by-82-foot act of subversion was soon whitewashed. Still, many people did not forget it, especially as Siqueiros became recognized as one of the most influential of the early 1900s Mexican muralists. Eight decades after it was painted, the city of Los Angeles, along with the Getty Conservation Institute, began a restoration. The whitewash had protected its details from sun and rain and finally, in 2012, its defiant scene was again revealed to the public. It is now the oldest mural in L.A., and the only one by Siqueiros in its original location.

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