Rube Goldberg: Inventions!

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Welcome to the world of that archetypal American, Reuben Lucius Goldberg, the dean of American cartoonists for most of the twentieth century. For more than sixty-five years, Rube Goldberg's syndicated cartoons -- he produced more than fifty strips -- appeared in as many as a thousand newspapers annually He was earning a hundred thousand dollars a year...in 1915. He wrote hit songs and stories and was, in succession, a star in vaudeville, motion pictures, newsreels, radio, and, finally, television.

He even, at the age of eighty, began an entirely new career as a sculptor, and, in inimitable Goldberg fashion, was soon selling his work to galleries, collectors, and museums all over the world. Sure, Rube won the Pulitzer Prize. Every year some cartoonist wins the Pulitzer Prize. But the National Cartoonists Society named its award -- the Reuben -- after you-know-who.

But it was Rube's "Inventions," those drawings of intricate and whimsical machines, that earned Rube his very own entry in Webster's New World Dictionary: Rube Goldberg...adjective...Designating any very complicated invention, machine, scheme, etc. laboriously contrived to perform a seemingly simple operation.

"Inventions," even the earliest ones that date from 1914, are still being republished and recycled today as they have been over the last eighty-five years. New generations rediscover and enjoy them every day, even though their creator cleaned his pens, put the cap on his bottle of Higgins Black India Ink, and cleared his drawing board for the last time almost thirty years ago. The inventions inspired the National Rube Goldberg™ Machine Contest, held annually at Purdue University, an "Olympics of complexity" in which hundreds of engineering students from American universities and colleges -- and even middle and high schools -- compete to build and run Rube Goldberg invention machines that perform, in twenty or more steps, the annual challenge.

In 1970 the Smithsonian Institution hosted a show honoring Rube Goldberg's lifework. In a life filled with superlatives, it hardly needs mentioning that Rube is the only living cartoonist and humorist to have been so honored. In his speech at the show's opening, Rube said, "Many of the younger generation know my name in a vague way and connect it with grotesque inventions, but don't believe that I ever existed as a person. They think I am a nonperson, just a name that signifies a tangled web of pipes or wires or strings that suggest machinery. My name to them is like spiral staircase, veal cutlets, barber's itch -- terms that give you an immediate picture of what they mean..."

So welcome to a collection of spiral staircases and veal cutlets -- to the inventions of an American original, a creative genius named Rube Goldberg.

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About the Author:

After a successful career as a photographer/writer, and then as an award-winning product designer, Maynard Frank Wolfe founded Rube Goldberg Inc. with the artist's heirs in 1994. As President of Rube Goldberg Inc., Wolfe oversees the continuing use and publication of Rube's work and the official Rube Goldberg Web site at www.rubegoldberg.com, as well as the numerous Rube Goldberg™ Machine Contest events held by schools and colleges throughout America. Born in Maine and raised in San Francisco, Wolfe now lives in New York.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: Biography

"Rube Goldberg": the name evokes an image of controlled chaos, wild originality, inventiveness, and good-humored laughter. The name has a familiar ring to it, but who was the guy?

The guy was an American genius whose long and fruitful career as an artist, cartoonist, and writer created and changed the way that Americans perceived the oncoming machine age that defined the start of the twentieth century.

Reuben Lucius Goldberg was born in San Francisco, California, on the Fourth of July, 1883. He was the second son of three boys and one surviving girl born to Hannah and Max Goldberg. Rube's mother, never in good health, died when Rube was in his early teens. His father had emigrated from Prussia as a very young man, living first in New York during the Civil War and then working his way west to San Francisco. Max, who never remarried after Hannah's death, maintained a comfortable upper-middle-class family home in San Francisco and raised his four children himself forging a close family unity that lasted all through their lives.

Max Goldberg, never without his traditional Stetson hat from his days as a cattle-ranch owner in Arizona, was a well-known character in San Francisco. The city (and the state) thought of itself as young and vigorous, without the social and class restrictions of the more established East. Max Goldberg dealt in real estate, banking, and the turbulent frontier politics of San Francisco.

Rube attended the prestigious Lowell High School. His nickname "Rube" was short for Reuben, but the nickname also stuck with him because he was left-handed. In those days, a left-handed baseball pitcher was nicknamed a rube.

Rube's passion and main interest from early childhood was drawing and, at age eleven, after a great deal of persistence at wearing down his father's reservations, he began formal art lessons. The drawing and painting classes he took were given by Charles Beall every Friday night at 50 cents each. Rube said, "My parents were not very enthusiastic, either about having an artist in the family, or about permitting an eleven-year-old boy to be out late at night."

A local sign painter by day, Mr. Beall was in his heart a dedicated, although not very successful, fine artist. Rube looked forward to these Friday night art lessons all through the week. "Charles Beall was a very serious teacher," he said. "He never permitted slipshod work and there was no loafing. I studied with Mr. Beall for three years. I never missed a class. We all worked very hard. For me, it was heaven." Just before his high school graduation, Rube announced to his family (and to his father's consternation) that he wanted to go to art school and become a full-time artist.

Max was really upset. To him, art as a hobby was okay, but as a profession-unthinkable! He had to find a way to make Rube agree to go to college to study for a "real" career. Max tried everything to dissuade Rube from ruining his life, including securing a congressman's appointment for Rube to go to West Point. However, he finally recognized that neither straight parental intimidation nor the lure of a military career would have any effect, With his talent for negotiations and deal making, he began to talk to Rube about engineering, knowing that the famous mining barons of the West Coast were paying their top mining engineers annual salaries and bonuses of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Max's most persuasive message to Rube was that the world's greatest artists, masters like Leonardo Da Vinci, were first trained as engineers before they took up their careers as artists. He was able to secure Rube a place in the School of Mining Engineering at the University of California in Berkeley, just across the San Francisco Bay. He assured Rube that with a degree from the university, and with some practical engineering experience in the business world, Rube would be able to make the important decisions about art, his career, and the future much more easily.

Rube agreed to attend the School of Mining Engineering. He lived at home, which meant, on good-weather days, a ninety-minute daily commute each way by cable car to the ferry, with a voyage across the San Francisco Bay to Oakland, and finally a train trip to the campus in Berkeley.

Rube enjoyed the university and its student life. He was popular and made many lifelong friends. He was especially active and well known on campus as a frequent contributor of drawings and cartoons to The Pelican (the then new and somewhat radical student humor magazine). He graduated in 1904.

Although an active alumnus and supporter of the university Rube said that his academic work there had been a waste of his time. However, in later years (and probably because he had two sons -- both college graduates, one an artist, the other a stage and screen producer-writer), he would almost grudgingly admit that the engineering training and experience really had been good for him.

Rube was always being asked where he got his ideas for his Inventions. While he credited the ingenious inventor Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts (the character lie created), Rube would also admit that his inspiration came from two of his professors at the University of California. Samuel B. Christy, dean of the College of Mining, was Rube's stereotype for the pretentious college scientist. Christy, an evangelical convert to the then new science of time-and-motion studies, lectured long, frequently, and with great passion on training workers as to the proper angle for holding and moving a loaded wheelbarrow so they could make more trips and save management money by working harder but more efficiently.

Professor Butts was also modeled after Rube's professor of analytic mechanics and physics, Frederick Slate. Professor Slate could have come right out of a Rube Goldberg cartoon. As Rube said, "In analytic mechanics you were introduced to the funniest-looking contrivances ever conceived by the human mind," and Professor Slate, as Rube described him, "matched his contrivances. He was a thin man with a high squeaky voice, a red beard, protruding Adam's apple and shiny gold-rimmed eyeglasses," all of which generated an ideal prototype for a caricature of a somewhat odd professor of analytical mechanics.

Professor Slate had invented and named a machine that he called the "Barodik." The origin of the name is still unknown, but its purpose, according to the professor, was to allow engineering students to calculate the weight of the earth. Rube described the Barodik as a system of tubes, retorts, hoses, and what appeared to be odds and ends salvaged from a defunct dental college. The Barodik was housed in its own basement laboratory at the university. The professor's engineering students had to use the Barodik for six months' worth of experiments to calculate the weight of the earth. Every student who completed the class got an A, because after adjusting for changing atmospheric conditions, the seasons, and so on, nobody really knew (or perhaps even cared) what the actual weight of the earth was.

Both of these men were merged by Rube to become Professor Butts, who waged his way against inefficiency by solving the problems that plagued the common man: opening a window, remembering to mail a letter, looking for one's glasses or for overshoes on a rainy day Butts's inventions played out the dramas that people perform every day in doing things the hard way.

That Barodik laboratory with Professor Christy and his lectures on working the workers more efficiently seem to have planted seeds in Rube's mind about the consequences of hypercomplication, useless information overload, and reliance on technology that wasn't clearly understood, tested, or even "debugged" before being used. However, the development of that experience into Rube's "Inventions" wouldn't happen until a few years later.

While still a mining engineering student at the University of California, Rube's summer "work experience" assignments: had meant working in the mine shafts and tunnels deep in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for the Oneida gold mines. After a summer of helping set dynamite charges and digging tunnels 2,000 feet below the earth's surface, followed by working in the noise, dust, and chaos of the stamping mills processing the ore, Rube knew that mining engineering was not for him.

Max reminded Rube that family honor meant that a deal was a deal, but instead of insisting Rube go back down into the mines after graduation, he found Rube a job with the San Francisco City Chief Engineer's Office. Rube's salary was set at the very lucrative sum of $100 per month, a top wage for a just-out-of-college young engineer in 1904. The job was mapping and drawing water and sewer pipe plans, "a job just as exciting as it sounds," said Rube.

After working for three months for San Francisco's top sewer and water engineer, Rube decided he had to quit. "No matter what the salary was," said Rube, "I would have been willing to exchange my diploma for one clean sheet of Bristol board...to draw upon."

Facing his father's disappointment, Rube pleaded, "Pa, I can't stand it any longer, I've got to try cartooning." It took courage to stand up to his father, quit his job, and attempt to enter a very competitive world, but Rube was showing the determination and perseverance that would be hallmarks of his life.

He had just one contact. The city editor of the San Francisco Chronicle was the father of a college classmate. He had seen Rube's cartoons for The Pelican and thought Rube's work just might be adapted for his newspaper's readers. He hired Rube as an art assistant at $8 a week.

Rube suffered through rejection after rejection of his work by the newspaper's art editor until his sports cartoons started to be published on a regular basis. As his humorous cartoons delighted more and more readers, he became well known in San Francisco, and gained a raise to $10 a week.

After nine months, Rube left the Chronicle for the San Francisco News-Call Bulletin to replace "TAD" (Thomas A. Dorgan), who had been hired away by William Randolph Hearst and had moved to New York. The Hearst newspapers and syndicate, based in New York City with its national distribution, was an important force in publishing. Hearst had personally recruited a number of San Francisco's top cartoonists, and it became a point of pride in the San Francisco cartoon world to have been recruited by WRH, Himself. This was at the start of the newspaper ways. American newspapers were fiercely competitive and publishers used their cartoonists as a major circulation-building weapon.

Surviving the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, Rube and his cartoons continued to grow in popularity, but only on the West Coast. it was now 1907 and Rube still hadn't received a call from Hearst to go to New York, the epicenter of publishing, and cartoonist heaven.

Rube, at twenty-four, decided that he had reached the limits of what he could expect to accomplish on the West Coast. Even though he didn't have an offer from Hearst (or any other New York publisher), Rube took his courage in hand, and went east to New York City.

Max Goldberg, now proud of Rube's work and reputation in San Francisco, backed his decision, although he too couldn't understand why Hearst hadn't called Rube. In Rube's words, "My security, along with my work, was a diamond ring that Pa gave me. He said I could sell it for a train ticket if I needed money to come home."

At the start of his national career, Rube found New York City exciting, but not as friendly and receptive to him and his work as San Francisco had always been. After arriving in New York jobless, with only his portfolio of cartoons, Rube's first weeks there brought unsuccessful interviews with the major New York City newspapers. Aside from a few San Francisco transplants, nobody knew him or cared about his work. Just as he was thinking seriously about using his diamond ring for a ticket home, Rube was hired at the end of 1907, not as a star cartoonist as he had hoped, but as a junior sports artist-cartoonist for the New York Evening Mail.

He was now on his way, and it was the start of a very fast ride. 1909 saw the debut and almost instant success of his first widely acclaimed cartoon series, Foolish Questions. When Rube asked readers to suggest their own Foolish Questions for him to draw as a way of showing his editors he was getting fan mail, hundreds of letters poured in. The fans' participation and the ideas they generated helped to establish Rube Goldberg as a nationally known name. By 1911, along with his regular daily sports and other cartoons, he had drawn almost four hundred cartoons in the Foolish Questions series alone, had published his first book with that title, and had licensed a boxed "Foolish Questions" card game that was a great success.

Until Max's death at well past ninety, whenever Rube wanted to negotiate a new syndicate contract, he would send for him. Max never lost his zeal and talent for "deal-making," especially when it concerned his son. He would get on a train in San Francisco and travel across the country to New York to sit down with the syndicate people and negotiate the best deal he could for Rube.

Max introduced a number of contractual innovations to the eastern newspaper executives. Unlike other cartoonists, Rube would not sell his drawings or his original characters outright to his publisher as was the custom. Rather, he would only license the use of his work for publication or syndication. Regardless of who published his work, Rube would always own the characters and properties, and would continue to receive royalties even if he changed publishers.

After his successful negotiations, Max would stay on and visit with Rube and his family for a few weeks, and then, still wearing his Stetson hat, would board the train back to San Francisco, where his daughter and other two sons lived.

In an era without television and with commercial radio in its infancy daily newspapers were the prime information source for everyone. Like the other leading cartoonists of his time, Rube was also appearing onstage in the major East Coast vaudeville theaters as a personality, drawing his funny cartoons onstage from subjects suggested by the audience.

Starting in 1915 and through 1916, Rube created and drew a series of short animated cartoons for silent motion picture release. Sixteen pictures (or frames) were needed for each foot of film, and a reel of film was about 1,000 feet, so thousands of pictures were needed for just a few minutes of on-screen entertainment. Rube was a perfectionist about his art as his drawings of that period illustrate. He was just not able to accept using other artists or assistants to draw his images, especially if he felt that these artists couldn't reach his standards. This meant that he had to draw everything himself. His personal labor and the resultant time required to make one reel of film for commercial release added up to a truly daunting commitment on Rube's part for a ten-minute show.

Rube would work on his daily newspaper cartoons five or six hours a day, and then dash to spend another ten hours doing his animation drawings at the studio before going back to the newspaper to do last-minute changes on his sports and editorial work. Working fifteen- to twenty-hour days, Rube had to make a choice between animated motion pictures and newspapers. His health was suffering, along with his regular newspaper and syndication work. His social life was in shambles, further complicated by his meeting and falling in love with his future wife, Irma. He chose, with some hesitation, to give up the new me...

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