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Reuben Lucius Goldberg was an engineer, inventor, cartoonist and sculptor. Born in 1883 in San Francisco, Rube Goldberg began practicing his art skills at the age of four when he traced illustrations from the humorous book History of the United States. At the age of eight, he was obsessed with line drawings and continued to trace from books, newspapers and calendars. He helped a friend with a magazine delivery route, and said once, "I would literally smell the ink on the pages. The pungent aroma gave me a greater thrill than inhaling the fragrance of the most exquisite perfume."

Unfortunately, his artistic tendencies were discouraged by his father, who later sent him to the University of California at Berkeley to study engineering. After graduating in 1904 with a degree in engineering, he briefly helped design sewer systems in San Francisco for $100 a month. He was depressed by the "lethargy of the city employees" and did not wish to be sitting behind the same desk for 40 years, showing false loyalty to corrupt politicians.

Rube quit so that he could draw cartoons for the San Francisco Chronicle for $8 a week. He enthusiastically offered his cartoons to the newspaper, only to later find them discarded in the wastebaskets. Occasionally the editor accepted one, but Rube was required to sweep floors and file pictures from the morgue to stay on the payroll. Then came his big break: as Rube was assigned to sketch athletes during sporting events, the newspaper's publishers were realizing that pictures increased sales. They instituted a color comic section and hired artists (who had inspired Rube years ago) from illustrated magazines like Saturday Evening Post and Life.

Rube Goldberg, 1923, Popular Science Magazine

Rube Goldberg's career was launched. He became the sports cartoonist for the San Francisco Bulletin, and then began working in New York in 1907 for the New York Evening Mail and the New York Sun. He created the characters Boob McNutt, Lala Palooza, and Mike & Ike ("they look alike"). His cartoon series "Foolish Questions" and "Sideshow" of wacky inventions became nationally syndicated. By 1922, he was earning $100,000 a year. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for a political cartoon warning of the dangers of atomic weapons. The Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. displayed a retrospective exhibition of his life's work in 1970, just weeks before his death. He was the first cartoonist to ever be so honored.

Rube Goldberg's invention cartoons were largely influenced by the "machine age" at the beginning of the century and by the complex new mechanisms invented to simplify life. Just as the last several decades have given us marvelous innovations in computer technology at an extremely fast pace, the same rapid advancement in new inventions was occurring at the turn of the century during the "machine age". Electricity, running water, telephones and the automobile were changing the way people lived and worked. New mechanical inventions for simplifying life were flooding the U.S. patent office. There were inventions for everything from automatic hat tippers to motorized shoe polishers.

Today, as the threat of Y2K approaches or as we experience occasional computer crashes, we face a parallel situation to that of Rube Goldberg's day. In the early 1900's, society was caught up in the controversy between the benefits of technology versus the increasing dependency on new machines. There was mistrust, reluctance to change, and a disparity between the few who were financially able to adopt the new technology and the general masses. There were gadgets galore, and Rube Goldberg was fascinated with the modern conveniences. He was a great satirist and saw the humor in it all.

Rube Goldberg spent 55 years drawing cartoons of machines and contraptions. His cartoons depicted simple household items, connected in funny but logical ways to perform a simple task. For instance, his cartoon invention of an automatic garage door opener used a bathtub, a flower, a bumblebee and an athlete. He had an extraordinary style and worked over 30 hours on each invention cartoon. The result was always another magnificent work of fine lines and great attention to detail.

Rube Goldberg believed that most people preferred doing things the hard way instead of using a more simple and direct path to accomplish a goal. In the words of the inventor, the machines were a "symbol of man's capacity for exerting maximum effort to achieve minimal results." His drawings became so well known that Webster's Dictionary defined the term rube goldberg as "accomplishing by extremely complex, roundabout means what seemingly could be done simply."

A Simple Moth Killing Machine




Rube At Work


Rube's likes and dislikes are apparent in his cartoons. He was a heavy cigar smoker and felt a person had a right to pollute the air around them as they saw fit. His opinion of politicians was formed during his early years and influenced by his father's involvement in politics in San Francisco. In many of his cartoons, politicians are depicted as well-dressed, cigar smoking, pot-bellied men blowing a lot of hot air (useful to power the latest mechanical contraption). And certainly, the engineer in him was fascinated with inventions and how things work.

In the last decade of his life, Rube turned to sculpture. While his new art form did not radiate the humor of his invention cartoons, his detailed style was still evident in his life-like depiction of animals, people and objects.


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Illustrations of Rube Goldberg Incorporated. Rube Goldberg is a trademark of Rube Goldberg Incorporated. Materials of Mechanical Invention Workshop and the Rube Goldberg Invention Convention, 1999.