Day 546: The Chef Of Chain Reactions

originally published June 29, 2013

Many savvy inventors devote their lives to looking at how we do things and trying to find an easier way. Leave it to an artist, someone who lives and breathes the abstract and absurd for a living, to create a lasting legacy based on transforming simple tasks into breathtakingly complicated maneuvers. Such is the footprint of Rube Goldberg, no doubt planted by a mighty iron boot, which was lowered on a large pole, which dropped down when a string was cut by a blade that was set into motion when a hamster ran on his wheel in pursuit of a chunk of cheese that was raised to his eye level when the opposing platform was weighted down when a bag of sand filled a container after being cut open by an ice pick that had been propelled forward by a small parachute when Rube sneezed.

Yes, Rube Goldberg’s lasting impression on our planet was the over-complicated machine, a concoction which picks at the meaty parts of the curious mind, demonstrating a chain of causes and effects that leaves some baffled and others agape with inspired awe.

So who was this guy? What compelled him to create such contraptions on the tenuous border between physics and madness? Well, I’m glad I asked.

Rube’s foray into the world of mad mechanics came not through hours in his garage or woodworking shop, looking for a clever way to polish his wingtips by pushing a ball down a ramp, but rather through his pen. Rube abandoned a career as an engineer for the San Francisco Water & Sewers Department, a career for which he’d trained with years of post-secondary schooling, to become a sports cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

His illustration skills brought him more gigs, and by 1915 the 32-year old Goldberg was nationally syndicated and as famous as a newspaper cartoon illustrator could be. I’m not sure what the modern-day totem of comparison would be for this level of fame, but based on the national circulation of major newspapers and the number of people who would likely pay attention to the name at the bottom of an illustration, I’d guess his fame was roughly equivalent to that of a correspondent on The Daily Show.

Rube Goldberg became well-known for his regular comic strip series, which included Mike And Ike (They Look Alike), and something called Boob McNutt. I’d hold off on doing a Google search for that one, particularly if you’re reading this at work.

The real winner in Rube’s arsenal of goofy ink-people was a character by the name of Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts. Professor Butts’ schtick involved creating inventions to perform common functions. Rube’s imagination was allowed to stretch and contort this idea, and it was these little comics, these swish-stroked sketches of pronounced cleverness and unabashed absurdity that locked down Rube’s place in conceptual infamy.

Here’s a typical example of a Rube Goldberg labyrinth of illogical labors. When Professor Butts takes a sip of soup, his arm pulls at the string, which flips the ladle (or possibly large spoon) and tosses a cracker into the air. The parrot then lunges at the cracker, which causes his perch to tilt, tipping the seeds into the pail, which subsequently pulls the cord and flicks open the lighter. The lighter ignites the rocket fuse, and when the rocket takes off, the attached sickle snips the cable and allows the pendulum to swing back and forth, wiping Butts’ chin with a napkin.

In true Rube Goldberg fashion, the device is practical only once. Even then, you’d either have to be eating outside or have another device ready to scoop up the plaster and debris when the rocket hits the ceiling. But let’s not overthink this; it’s comedy. The humor lies in its inherent goofiness.

By 1931, Rube was in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. His name had become an adjective that signified any act of accomplishing something simple through ridiculously complex means.

Rube ventured into show business in 1930, penning the script for Soup To Nuts, the feature film debut of the team that would eventually become known as the Three Stooges.  The film was made before Shemp traded places with younger brother Curly Howard, and before anyone had considered giving the trio top-billing. After a lengthy foray into writing cartoons for the screen, this was Rube’s only stab at a major motion picture.

The legacy of Rube’s penchant for nutty and elaborate creations carried on into popular culture, showing up as an alphabet machine on Sesame Street, a monkey-catching device in John Wayne’s Hatari!, and Doc Brown’s intricate method for feeding his dog in the opening scene of Back To The Future. The man has become a household name, and mostly among people who have never laid eyes on his cartoons or perused his books.

Fifty years ago, a company called Ideal put out a board game that truly made use of the Rube Goldberg technology. If you haven’t played Mouse Trap, you have missed out on one of the fundamental board game experiences of childhood. Scold your parents.

In this game, players gradually build the components of the machine, which inevitably unleashes its chain-reaction fury and captures one of the player’s mouse pieces. That is, if no one first loses their patience from trying to balance that damn ball on the platform above the bathtub and tosses the entire thing across the room.

Game designer Marvin Glass initially acknowledged that he had been inspired to create the game by Rube Goldberg’s life’s work. When it came time to pay licensing fees or royalties so that Rube could earn a little bank for having fuelled this inspiration, Marvin paid nothing. Rube could have taken legal action, but at this point he was hurdling his 80th birthday, and not particularly compelled to enter into a lengthy litigation process. He simply asserted that ideas were not intellectual property, so whatever. I think he could have had a win on his hands had he taken it to court.

Rube passed away in 1970, but his grandchildren still handle the legal rights to his name, and keep the fires of creativity burning in the family.

An interesting side-note – Rube had two sons, Thomas and George, both of whom had their names changed when they were children because of the controversy Rube was dealing with over his WWII-era political cartoons. The last name chosen for them: George. George W. George (yes, really) had a successful career as a Broadway producer, and as the producer of the 1981 film, My Dinner With Andre.

It’s strange – almost Rube Goldbergian – how fate finds its way from the San Francisco sewers to the Three Stooges to an independent film about two people dining. Rube Goldberg captured the simultaneous chaos and order of life and made it his name’s lasting shadow.

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