December 07, 2015

Rube Goldberg

Today is the anniversary of the death of Rube Goldberg in 1970. 

adj. accomplishing by complex means what seemingly could be done simply
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition

Though once revered and beloved as a comic icon, Rube Goldberg’s name has recently taken a pejorative turn and come to represent overcomplication and waste—a true shame for this superlative and Pulitzer Prize–winning artist.

Reuben Garret Lucius Goldberg was born in 1883 and longed for the life of an artist. His father longed otherwise, and Goldberg earned an engineering degree from UC Berkeley in 1904 before designing sewer systems for the city of San Francisco. Goldberg quickly had his fill of municipal misery and captured a gofer job in the sports department of the San Francisco Chronicle. His constant doodling caught the eye of the editor and eventually earned him a promotion and then a ticket to New York as a full-time cartoonist. He was fully syndicated by 1915.

Goldberg created silly characters such as Boob McNutt, Lala Palooza, and Mike and Ike (“they look alike”), as well as numerous series of purely entertainment fare in the 1920s and 1930s. Like Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, Goldberg turned his talent toward political cartoons during World War II. These would earn him a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 but would also drive him to change the last names of his sons after he began receiving threatening hate mail.

But it was Goldberg’s creation of Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts and his wacky inventions that would cement his legacy and earn him a retrospective at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, near the end of his life. The professor’s inventions featured impossibly complicated chain reactions (often involving animals) to perform startlingly mundane tasks. A classic example was his “simplified pencil-sharpener” that required moths to eat a flannel shirt—to drop a shoe—to step on a switch to heat an electric iron—to burn a hole in some pants—to create the smoke that will chase an opossum from a tree and into a basket—to pull a rope and lift a cage—to release a woodpecker to chew on a pencil to sharpen it.

The drawings were wildly popular and spawned children’s board and video games as well as emulation in countless feature films, animations, sitcoms, commercials, and science shows. They inspired an annual competition at Purdue University in which winning entries must use as many mechanical steps as possible to perform a simple task such as dispensing hand sanitizer, juicing an orange, or making a hamburger. Unfortunately, they have also been used by political pundits and even actual journalists as an insult to describe everything from complicated health-care bills and Social Security to campaign-finance reform and military withdrawals as Rube Goldberg designs.

Goldberg retired in 1964 to become a sculptor and died in 1970 at the age of eighty-seven. He was posthumously commemorated on a postage stamp featuring his work and had an award named for him by the National Cartoonists Society. However, despite his mass appeal and extraordinary success, Goldberg was clearly a bit of a social skeptic. He once noted acerbically that his inventions were a “symbol of man’s capacity for exerting maximum effort to achieve minimal results.”