The young Rube Goldberg had known since the beginning that he wanted art to be his lifework, and he had both his heart and mind set on it. Despite his fervor, however, Rube was not able to pursue his interest right away, as this was not received well by his parents. It was specifically his father, who was then a San Francisco police and fire commissioner, who did not approve of it as a future career choice. His father was not set out on depriving Rube of satisfaction. He simply did not want his son to be a “struggling artist.” Max Goldberg wanted his son to become an engineer. Nonetheless, Rube was allowed to take art lessons when he was 11 years of age. Rube attended Lowell High School until he graduated in 1900. His father eventually succeeded in persuading Rube to take up engineering. He reasoned that many of the greatest artists, like da Vinci, had also trained in engineering. Thus, he went to the School of Mining Engineering in the University of California at Berkeley for his engineering studies. While engaged in the study of processes, structures, and systems, Rube did not forget his passion for the arts. He made cartoons and submitted it to The Pelican, a student publication. In 1904, Rube Goldberg earned his bachelor's degree in engineering.
Soon after completing his degree, Rube Goldberg found work at the San Francisco City Engineer’s Office, Water and Sewers Department. He was mainly responsible for designing sewer system plans around the San Francisco area. The job did not just earn for him a monthly paycheck of $100, which, at the time, was a high-paying job for a fresh graduate. Despite this, Rube was restless. He stayed on the job only for a couple of months. Perhaps, what can be regarded as the most significant contribution of this phase in Rube Goldberg’s life was to make him realize what he did not want to be doing for the rest of his working life. His job also exposed him to the corrupted political scenario. He abhorred it and refused to pledge his allegiance to corrupt politicians. Finally, it propelled the jaded Rube Goldberg back to the direction that he had wanted to take since the beginning.
When Rube Goldberg left his job, he worked at the San Francisco Chronicle as an art assistant, with the intention of becoming a professional cartoonist. With his humor and zest for drawing cartoons revived, Rube submitted one cartoon after another to the newspaper. Unfortunately, he would find his work well received only by the office trash bins. There were rare instances when his editor would approve one of his creations for publication. However, it usually called for a tradeoff—Rube would have the satisfaction of seeing his work immortalized in print in exchange for doing less than pleasant office tasks. He would sometimes be asked to clean floors and sort through pictures from the morgue.
His breakthrough assignment came in the form of a sporting event. Publishers found that illustrations greatly raised the newspaper’s sales; hence, they commissioned cartoonists to do a color comic section in which sketches of athletes were featured. Many of these artists were the same ones that influenced Rube Goldberg’s work since his early years. His work was well received in California, and it earned him a $2-dollar raise to $10 per week. Thus started his first stint as a professional in the field as a sports cartoonist for the San Francisco Bulletin.
The Bulletin launched Mike and Ike (They Look Alike) on September 29, 1907. It was a Sunday comic series featuring the life of a moronic duo and identical twins after which the cartoon was named. It was initially produced under World Color Printing, Co., which was then engaged in the publication, syndication, and distribution of Sunday comics. However, Mike and Ike did not turn into an instant success as Rube Goldberg would have hoped it to be at the time. Despite the setback, Rube remained persistent. He maintained the Mike and Ike cartoon features in his daily comics amidst the discouraging public reception just to keep the idea going. It took some years, but his persistence eventually paid off.
In 1907, Rube moved to New York and freelanced for a number of publications. After much struggle which had become characteristic of every beginning in his career as cartoonist, he was hired by the New York Evening Mail. Since he was a nobody in the Big Apple, he had to go back to square one. He was hired as a junior sports artist, and it took him two years before he was able to start a cartoon series. It was here that he began to gain popularity as a cartoonist through his one-panel comic “Foolish Questions.” Once, he drew an illustration of a man who had fallen from the Flatiron Building. The cartoon showed a bystander asking the man, “Are you hurt?”
That became Foolish Question No. 1, to which the fallen man answered, “No, I jump off this building every day to limber up for my business.” Thousands of foolish questions came after that. He later recognized the editor Franklin P. Adams for giving him the idea. The concept behind the cartoon was inspired by things that people sometimes say, no matter that they are pointing out the obvious, in order to start a conversation. Of all his work, Foolish Questions seem to showcase Rube Goldberg’s wry sense of humor best. It featured sarcastic rejoinders to foolish questions people typically ask. For example, the single panel would show a man raiding the kitchen at night while another character asks him, “Still awake?” The first man, obviously wide awake, would then respond with something like, “No, you’re actually seeing me sleepwalk.” Unlike Mike and Ike, Foolish Questions had a strong following. Proof to this claim was the fact that a lot of the witty comebacks were made in response to “foolish questions” suggested by the readers themselves.
Foolish Questions ran from 1908 to 1934, and its success resulted in spin-offs across various media. In fact, Rube Goldberg’s launch as an author started with a book of the same title, which was published in 1909. There was also a phonograph recording of it featuring the voice of singer Billy Murray, and a game wherein players vied with each other in giving the cleverest answers. It was also the forerunner of Mad magazine’s “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions,” which began in the sixties.
One thing seemed funnier than Rube Goldberg’s cartoons, though. Although not yet famous, Rube had somehow established a name as a cartoonist around 1911. His father Max, who had previously discouraged him from becoming an artist, eventually became his agent around that time. As such, Max handled the negotiations and took care of the terms and conditions of Rube’s contracts. On top of these, he made sure that Rube would get intellectual property rights for all of his work, including the characters and any derivations of his work. He became every bit the stage father, as he ensured that Rube’s work would be licensed only for publication.
It was obvious that the major influence of what would later become Rube Goldberg’s most famous creation was his background in engineering. It must have pleased his father to a great degree. In 1914, Rube began his work on The Inventions. His comic series was very timely, as it was also the same period as the start of the American Age of Invention. With so many discoveries in technology made during that period, Rube had plenty of material to work with.
Rube Goldberg was born and raised within the same period that the Vaudeville was as its peak. Hence, it was not surprising that Rube also performed onstage, together with other cartoonists during his time. It was 1911 when he began performing in vaudeville as a comedian, and he would combine his act with doodling cartoons and even fortune telling. Aside from his stand-up comedy acts, he was also a playwright. In 1914, he was already part of the opening performance at the Lyric Theatre in Birmingham, Alabama. Continue to next page.