A Rube Goldberg device. Artist: Rube Goldberg.


Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: Various syndicates
First Appeared: 1914
Creator: Rube Goldberg
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Rube Goldberg was the inventor of many comics features — Lunatics I Have Met, Foolish Questions, The Candy Kid and others, in addition to his …

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… better-known series, such as Boob McNutt and Mike & Ike. But the "inventions" he's best known for are purely fictional ones — the so-called "Rube Goldberg devices" that are so fabulous, so outrageous, so hilarious, that the phrase has been a familiar part of our language for generations.

The cartoonist said his inspiration came from a college professor whose class he'd taken more than a decade earlier. Professor Frederick Slate, who taught a course in analytical mechanics, had built an incredibly complex device for measuring Earth's mass, which he dubbed the Barodik. Goldberg, an engineering major, was thinking of Slate's improbable mass of quasi-identifiable parts when he drew his "Automatic Weight Reducing Machine" in 1914, for The New York Evening Mail. It used such elements as a lump of wax, a bomb, a helium balloon, a red-hot stove and a donut rolling down an incline, to trap the overweight individual in a sound-proof, food-proof prison until he loses enough weight to wriggle free.

There followed equally unlikely contraptions for lighting cigars while driving at 50 mph, locating lost golf balls, scrubbing your back in the bathtub, and many other useful purposes. No human activity was so simple Goldberg couldn't find a way to make it outrageously complicated — even opening windows and scratching mosquito bites became subjects of Rube Goldberg's complex and zany inventions. Nor was any so impractical he couldn't make it look like it ought to work in some universe where the laws of Nature are just a little bit more accommodating.

Goldberg did a wide variety of newspaper cartooning in his long career, from sports to political cartoons. But he kept returning to his crazy inventions. For a time during the 1920s and '30s, they were attributed to the unseen Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts. In the '40s, some of them took the theme of plans for the Post-War World. Even when, in 1963 (at age 80), he gave up cartooning to devote his creative energy to sculpture, he sculpted the occasional silly invention. Some of them were even done as kinetic sculptures, i.e., sculpture with moving parts.

In 1995, the U.S. Postal Service chose 20 "Comic Strip Classics" for a series of commemorative stamps. Naturally, "Rube Goldberg Inventions" were right there with Brenda Starr, Prince Valiant and the rest.

Most people have never seen the actual work of Rube Goldberg, which is seldom reprinted. Nonetheless, the general outline of it is so well known that any ridiculously complicated machine is likely to be called a "Rube Goldberg device" — and probably will continue to be for many generations to come.


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Text ©2001-07 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Rube Goldberg estate.