CLOSE

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
C. Fritz/MC
arrow
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Ice Age Artists Used Charcoal Over 10,000 Years to Create Europe's Oldest Cave Paintings
C. Fritz/MC
C. Fritz/MC

Tiny bits of charcoal found in a cave in France are providing new clues into how our prehistoric ancestors lived some 35,000 years ago.

The samples were taken from the Chauvet Pont d'Arc Cave in southern France, whose wall paintings are the oldest in Europe and among the oldest in the world. Few people have ever been inside the cave, which was discovered only in 1994 and remains one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time—but some might recognize it from Werner Herzog's award-winning documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

The results of the charcoal analysis, published today in the April issue of the journal Antiquity, enabled researchers to paint a picture of how humans created art in the Ice Age, as well as the bitter climactic conditions of that time.

Researchers collected 171 samples of charcoal from hearths and torch marks in the cave. Other bits of charcoal were found directly beneath the animal paintings, which have been preserved in incredible detail after being sealed off by a rockfall thousands of years ago.

A drawing of rhinos inside the Chauvet cave
C. Fritz/MC

The analysis revealed that all but one of the charcoal samples came from burnt pine trees; the remaining one came from buckthorn. That doesn't sound all that impressive until you consider that some of these drawings were created nearly 10,000 years apart, during two different Ice Age periods. Put differently, for millennia, humans chose to use the same material for the sole purpose of creating art.

Researchers concluded that while other types of wood could have been used, the artists who created these cave paintings continued to choose pine, likely due to the availability of fallen branches as well as its combustion properties. But more remarkably, researchers believe these early artists selected it because it was the perfect medium for their art, ideal "for the smudging and blending techniques used in cave paintings," according to the study.

Over the years, the paintings have been praised for their artistic merit and use of motion. As Herzog commented in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, one artist's rendering of a bison with eight legs suggested movement—"almost a form of proto-cinema."

These findings also reveal what the climate was like during that time, and it was anything but balmy. The researchers write:

"Pine is a pioneer taxon [group] with an affinity for mountainous environments and survived in refuges during the coldest periods of the last ice age. As such, it attests, first and foremost, to the harsh climatic conditions that prevailed during the various occupations of the cave."

To preserve the cave paintings, only researchers are allowed inside the Chauvet Cave. However, a replica of the cave was built in France's Ardèche region and remains open to tourists.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
King Features Syndicate
arrow
Comics
10 Things You Might Not Know About Hägar the Horrible
King Features Syndicate
King Features Syndicate

For 45 years, the anachronistic adventures of a Scandinavian Viking named Hägar have populated the funny papers. Created by cartoonist Dik Browne, Hagar the Horrible is less about raiding and pillaging and more about Hägar’s domestic squabbles with wife Helga. If you’re a fan of this red-bearded savage with a surprisingly gentle demeanor, check out some facts about the strip’s history, Hägar’s status as a soda pitchman, and his stint as a college football mascot.

1. HÄGAR IS NAMED AFTER HIS CREATOR.

Richard Arthur “Dik” Browne got his start drawing courtroom sketches for New York newspapers; he debuted a military strip, Ginny Jeep, for servicemen after entering the Army in 1942. Following an advertising stint where he created the Chiquita Banana logo, he was asked to tackle art duties on the 1954 Beetle Bailey spinoff strip Hi and Lois. When he felt an urge to create his own strip in 1973, Browne thought back to how his children called him “Hägar the Horrible” when he would playfully chase them around the house. “Immediately, I thought Viking,” he told People in 1978. Hägar was soon the fastest-growing strip in history, appearing over 1000 papers.

2. HE COULD HAVE BEEN BULBAR THE BARBARIAN.

A Hägar the Horrible comic strip
King Features Syndicate

Working on Hi and Lois with cartoonist Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey) gave Browne an opportunity to solicit advice on Hägar from his more experienced colleague. As Walker recalled, he thought “Hägar” would be too hard for people to pronounce or spell and suggested Browne go with “Bulbar the Barbarian” instead. Browne brushed off the suggestion, preferring his own alliterative title.

3. A HEART ATTACK COULD HAVE CHANGED HÄGAR’S FATE.

When Browne came up with Hägar, he sent it along to a syndicate editor he knew from his work on Hi and Lois. According to Chris Browne, Dik’s son and the eventual artist for Hägar after his father passed away in 1989, the man originally promised to look at it after he got back from his vacation. He changed his mind at the last minute, reviewing and accepting the strip before leaving. Just days later, while on his ski vacation, the editor had a heart attack and died. If he hadn’t approved the strip prior to his passing, Browne said, Hägar may never have seen print.

4. THE STRIP HELPED BROWNE AVOID VANDALS.

A Hägar the Horrible comic strip
King Features Syndicate

Chris Browne recalled that Halloween in his Connecticut neighborhood was a time for kids to show their appreciation for his father’s work. While trick-or-treaters were busy covering nearby houses in toilet paper or spray paint, they spared the Browne residence. The only evidence of their vandalism was a spray-painted sign that read, “Mr. Browne, We Love Hägar.”

5. BROWNE’S DAUGHTER TALKED HIM OUT OF KIDNAPPING PLOTS.

Vikings were not known for being advocates for human rights. Hägar, despite his relatively genteel persona, still exhibited some barbaric traits, such as running off with “maidens” after a plundering session. Speaking with the Associated Press in 1983, Browne admitted he toned down the more lecherous side of Hägar after getting complaints from his daughter. “Running off with a maiden isn’t funny,” she told him. “It’s a crime.”

6. HÄGAR ENDORSED SODA.

A soda can featuring Hägar the Horrible
Amazon

Despite his preference for alcohol, Hägar apparently had a bit of a sweet tooth as well. In the 1970s, King Features licensed out a line of soda cans featuring some of their most popular comic strip characters, including Popeye, Blondie, and Hägar. The Viking also shilled for Mug Root Beer in the 1990s.

7. HE WAS A COLLEGE MASCOT.

In 1965, Cleveland State University students voted in the name “Vikings” for their collegiate basketball team. After using a mascot dubbed Viktorious Vike, the school adopted Hägar in the 1980s. Both Hägar and wife Helga appeared at several of the school’s sporting events before being replaced by an original character named Vike.

8. HE EVENTUALLY SOBERED UP.

A Hägar the Horrible comic strip
King Features Syndicate

When Dik Browne was working on Hägar, the Viking was prone to bouts of excessive drinking. When Chris Browne took over the strip, he made a deliberate decision to minimize Hägar’s imbibing. "When my father was doing the strip, he did an awful lot of gags about Hägar falling down drunk and coming home in a wheelbarrow, and as times go on that doesn't strike me as that funny anymore,” Brown told the Chicago Tribune in 1993. “Just about everybody I know has had somebody hurt by alcoholism or substance abuse.”

9. HE HAD HIS OWN HANNA-BARBERA CARTOON.

It took some time, but Hägar was finally honored with the animated special treatment in 1989. Cartoon powerhouse Hanna-Barbera created the 30-minute special, Hägar the Horrible: Hägar Knows Best, and cast the Viking as being out of his element after returning home for the first time in years. The voice of Optimus Prime, Peter Cullen, performed the title character. It was later released on DVD as part of a comic strip cartoon collection.

10. HE SAILED INTO THE WIZARD OF ID.

A Wizard of Id comic strip
King Features Syndicate

In 2014, Hägar made an appearance in the late Johnny Hart’s Wizard of Id comic strip, with the two characters looking confused at the idea they’ve run into one another at sea. Hägar also made a cameo in Blondie to celebrate that character’s 75th birthday in 2005.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios