A Rube Goldberg Invention: The comic impractical art of complex inventions that work!

Have you ever come across the term a Rube Goldberg invention? If you have, it might have left you confused. Who is this notorious inventor and how come you have never heard of any of his inventions?

Well, Rube Goldberg is notorious, but in a different way to how most inventors are known.

An invention attributed to Rube Goldberg is simply a term, one that has become an adjective, used to denote an invention or a system that is overly complex, without a need for it to be so. The term is also used outside the immediate context of mechanical systems, as an adjective, when someone wants to criticize an absurd solution, offered for something that is really quite easy to solve.

Who was Rube Goldberg?

Rube Lucius Goldberg is known as an artists and a cartoonist, however this was not his original training. Goldberg was born in 1883 to Jewish parents in San Francisco, US.  He studied engineering during university and used to work at the water and sewers department after graduation. However, Goldberg didn’t enjoy his job and he started pursuing his real passion: art, and specifically: drawing.

He quit his job and started working as a cartoonist, selling cartoons to newspapers and eventually getting a job as a staff cartoonist for the Evening mail in NY.

Goldberg loved drawing from a young age. He never had official art training, but has told in interviews how he used to go at about the age of 12 to a sign painter house with a friend and take lessons. Some of drawings are also dating back to things he did for fun during high school.

Rube Goldberg drawing: how to pick olives from a long necked bottle
 Rube goldberg invention

Rube Goldberg gained his fame through the creation of what is famously known today as ‘Rube Goldberg inventions’. He used his background and knowledge in engineering to create drawing of inventions that are absurd and complex, and require the exertion of a lot of effort to achieve the required output, while the same results could have easily been achieved in a more simple way.

A Rube Goldberg invention is often humorous and clearly comic. The individuals depicted often seem caught up in an overly complicated world – a social criticism that Goldberg managed to deliver through his art.

His inventions usually rely on simple mechanism rather than on complicated technology.   You can often see his devices composed of simple features that are prevalent in nature, such as pets, sunlight, water or plants. All the features that together create a complicated Rube Goldberg invention, are in essence, very simple.

In an interview Goldberg described how he came about to create those first drawings of inventions. He was inspired by a professors work back in his university days that had a huge complex contraption in a lab which he asked students to use to try and extrapolate and come up with the “weight of the earth”. Goldberg had found the all process ridiculous: “I didn't care how much the earth weighed.

But the experience has stuck in his mind and when he came to draw later on in his cartooning career he has ended creating the same type of contraction, only adding monkeys, midgets  : “I just hark back to this thing and say, this is funny, and that's the way people, go to a great extreme to accomplish very little”

With every additional crazy invention drawing, the concept was taken up and he was dubbed, an inventor. He laughingly referred to himself as a ‘crazy inventor’.

Rube Goldberg drawing: automatic back scratcher
 Rube goldberg invention

Perhaps one of the reasons his inventions gained so much popularity, is the fact that each Rube Goldberg invention actually works. Yes, they are impractical, but, you can usually see how each of his devices will function properly, if the right circumstances took place (weather permitting, for example).

Rube Goldberg stamp
 Rube goldberg stamp

Rube Goldberg is now a term you can find in the dictionary, and Goldberg was lucky enough to see his rise to fame during his life time. He has been depicted in a US stamp and his art has gained many followers.

The first Rube Goldberg cartoon was made in 1905, and later on in his life he reverted to sculpture and dedicated most of his time to it.

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