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 what would be his 135th birthday, here are 13 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.

8 Surprising Facts and Misconceptions About Recycling

iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz
iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

If you pat yourself on the back for just remembering to separate the recycling or haul that big blue bin to the curb each week, you're not alone. Despite the strides we appear to be making toward eco-consciousness as a country, we have a long way to go in helping the Earth, as evidenced by our complicated relationship with recycling. These facts about the most prevalent of the three Rs will make you pause the next time you throw anything away.

1. The United States's recycling rate is low—really low.

Figures from the Environmental Protection Agency show that America recycles about 34.7 percent of the garbage it produces. (The world's top recyclers—Germany, Austria, Wales, and South Korea—report a rate between 52 and 56 percent.) But Mitch Hedlund, founder and Executive Director of the organization Recycle Across America isn't even sure the recycling rate often quoted is accurate because there is so much junk mixed in with actual recyclables.

Recycle Across America is currently working to encourage the use of standardized labels for recycling bins to eliminate the confusion over what actually belongs in these receptacles. "If the U.S. gets the recycling number up to 75 percent, which we believe is completely possible once the confusion (over what to place in the bins) is removed, it will be the CO2 equivalent of removing 50 million cars from the roads each year in the U.S. and it will create 1.5 million permanent new jobs in the U.S. (net)."

2. Proper recycling can result in monetary savings.

Businessman stepping on green squares with recycling symbols
iStock.com/Rawpixel

While Hedlund admits the idea of providing universal labels clearly stating what should be placed in the bins is a simple one, it's making a serious impact on those who have jumped on the bandwagon. "Many schools are seeing dramatic increases in their recycling levels since using the society-wide standardized labels on their recycling bins," she says. "For instance, in the pilot program at Culver City schools in Los Angeles [County], their recycling levels doubled when they started using the standardized labels and the materials they were collecting in their recycling bins were so much less contaminated with garbage." Another story, she says, is that "as a result of a donation from Kiehls (who makes a donation to Recycle Across America each April in the sum of $50,000), all of the schools in the San Diego Unified School District and San Diego County started using the standardized labels. San Diego Unified School District reduced their landfill hauling fees by about $200,000 (net) in the first year."

3. Recent changes from China have severely impacted the recycling industry.

Until 2018, China took 40 percent of the United States's recycled paper, plastic, and metal. But in January of that year, China imposed strict new rules on the levels of contamination (think food or other garbage mixed in with the recyclables) it's willing to accept—standards American cities are largely unable to meet. Because of that, and a lack of suitable destinations closer to home, many cities have been forced to incinerate or stockpile recyclables until they can find a better solution.

4. Only 9 percent of plastic is recycled in the U.S.

The nation recycles less than 10 percent of its plastic, compared to 67 percent for paper materials, 34 percent for metals, and 26 percent for glass. And China's restrictions have especially affected plastic—while exports of scrap plastic to China were valued at more than $300 million in 2015, they amounted to $7.6 million in the first quarter of 2018, down 90 percent from the year before.

5. Clothing can be recycled, but it rarely is.

Clothing at a garage sale
iStock.com/alexeys

Unfortunately, most curbside haulers don't accept textiles, and America has a serious problem with old clothes ending up in the trash. In 2019, the nation is on track to throw away more than 35 billion pounds of textiles, according to the Council for Textile Recycling—almost double the number from 1999. On the plus side, some cities have set up drop-off points for unwanted clothes, and there are a variety of ways to sell or donate unwanted items. Some brands, including Eileen Fisher and Patagonia, have also introduced buy-back programs for their items.

6. Aluminum is the world's most-recycled packaging product.

Crushed aluminum cans
iStock.com/hroe

Nearly 70 percent of aluminum cans are recycled internationally, according to Novelis, a leader in rolled aluminum products and recycled aluminum. Aluminum is infinitely recyclable without degrading, meaning it can be reused in a way completely different from what it was in its previous life, or recast into its original form. Not only is aluminum the world's most-recycled product, it's also the most profitable and the most energy-efficient. Using recycled aluminum instead of virgin materials saves about 95% of the energy, compared to 60% for paper and 34% for glass [PDF].

7. That soda can you're drinking from could find its way back to you more quickly than you think.

According to Novelis's research, an aluminum can that is recycled can be back on a grocery store shelf within 60 days [PDF]. That's a seriously speedy turnaround.

8. Scrap recycling is big business.

While the words scrap recycling might have you humming the Sanford & Son theme song, it's far from being a junkyard industry. According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), in 2017 U.S. scrap recyclers processed more than 130 million tons of scrap metal, paper, plastic, glass, textiles, and more—material that was sold back to industrial consumers in the U.S. and around the world, generating close to $18 billion in export sales. All told, scrap recycling was a $117 billion industry in 2017 [PDF].

This list first ran in 2015 and was updated by Mental Floss staff in 2019.

From Cocaine to Chloroform: 28 Old-Timey Medical Cures

YouTube
YouTube

Is your asthma acting up? Try eating only boiled carrots for a fortnight. Or smoke a cigarette. Have you got a toothache? Electrotherapy might help (and could also take care of that pesky impotence problem). When it comes to our understanding of medicine and illnesses, we’ve come a long way in the past few centuries. Still, it’s always fascinating to take a look back into the past and remember a time when cocaine was a common way to treat everything from hay fever to hemorrhoids.

In this week's all-new edition of The List Show, Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy is highlighting all sorts of bizarre, old-timey medical cures. You can watch the full episode below.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here.

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