Rube Goldberg Machines and Inventions

The Rube Goldberg machine

His first drawing for “Inventions!” in the New York Evening Mail was, in fact, a fruit that did not fall far from the tree. It was called an “Automatic Weight-Reducing Machine,” and this illustration was first viewed in 1914. The Automatic Weight-Reducing Machine was made up of a donut, bomb, wax, balloon, and hot stove. The basic principle was to get an oversized person trapped in some sort of prison devoid of food, and the main goal was to make the person leaner and lighter so he could wriggle out of the so-called prison. It was like rehab in cartoon form. Like all of Professor Butts’ contraptions that followed, the materials were common but unlikely components of a machine. This was the recurring theme of Rube Goldberg’s Inventions series: the use of simple objects so intricately designed that the tiniest movement would cause a string of reactions. The processes involved were so complex and precisely timed that the readers would always found the main purpose of the invention hilarious. Case in point, many of the illustrations were highly engineered machines for collecting mail, opening a window, searching for a ball, scratching an itch, and washing one’s back at bath time.

Rube Goldberg had always been intrigued by modern technology, but he also found the way people reacted to the changes technology brings amusing. He thought that people vacillated between two extremes: they were either apprehensive about it or were progressively becoming lazier and complacent. He found it rather strange that people would almost always choose to take the convoluted over the simple. For this reason, his cartoons poked fun at how people seem to enjoy complicating their lives. Always keen to detail, it was reported that Rube Goldberg would work on each piece for more than 30 hours.

Professor Butts was the fictional inventor of a variety of devices characterized by an exaggeratedly engineered system. Each machine would require a series of reactions from one part to another, ending in the performance of a function too simple, bordering on the trivial, that it was almost ridiculous. A classic example of such contraption was the Self-Operating Napkin. As published in the cover of the postcard book “Rube Goldberg’s Inventions!” the illustration shows Professor Butts raising a soup spoon to his mouth to get the machine started. This act results in a chain reaction: the soup spoon is connected to another spoon at the opposite end, which, in turn, pitches a piece of cracker to a parrot. As the parrot attempts to catch the cracker, it causes a container of seeds to empty itself into a small bucket. The added weight pulls down the string the bucket is attached to, and this turns on an automatic lighter that ignites a small rocket. This, in turn, causes an attached sickle to cut off a cord connected to a clock to which the napkin is attached. As the clock’s pendulum swings back and forth, it waves the napkin from side to side, wiping off Professor Butts’ chin. Other hilarious solutions that he was able to come up with included a “Simple Alarm Clock” and “How to Get the Cotton Out of an Aspirin Bottle.”

This was the true breakthrough in Rube Goldberg’s career as both an engineer and a gag artist. It can even be said that the cartoon was a concatenation of everything that Rube Goldberg was. As with his previous works, his characters remained to be larger-than-life and awkward. Professor Butts’ inventions launched Rube Goldberg’s name across the world and across generations.


While in New York City, Rube Goldberg also worked at the New York Sun as an editorial cartoonist. On July 22, 1947, he drew a political cartoon that won for him the Pulitzer Prize the following year.


More than just being a household name, the name “Rube Goldberg” came to be recognized by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as a word which means, “doing something simple in a very complicated way that is not necessary.” It was not just the Merriam-Webster Dictionary that paid tribute to Goldberg when it included his name in its word list in 1931. The National Cartoonists Society, the organization of professional cartoonists in the United States, also traces its origins as a club established in honor of Rube Goldberg. In fact, the Reuben Awards was also named to pay tribute to the legendary cartoonist. It is a gala event held each year in celebration of the most Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year. It goes without saying that the affair is like the Academy Award, or The Oscars, for the cartoon industry in the United States.

In the UK, the equivalent of Rube Goldberg is Heath Robinson, after W. Heath Robinson, who also designed eccentric and complicated machines that are similar to those created by Goldberg. Continue to next page.