RUBE GOLDBERG (July 4, 1883 – December 7, 1970)

This comic inventor has left us now - but his invention and legacy lives on. His invention was in the satirical vein. Convoluted steps to reach what is a simple task.

"Man will always find a complicated means to perform a simple task" -- Rube Goldberg

This is the philosophy that drove comic inventor Reuben Lucius Goldberg . He was a cartoonist - both political and satirical. What lives on are his “Goldberg Machines - that took you on a journey of at least 10 steps to reach a result that could really be accomplished in one or two. He made fun of the complexity of man - and everyone laughed.

Goldberg started out as an engineer working for the City of San Francisco, CA. But that was not his calling. He became a sports cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle after only a few months as an engineer.

He worked for several newspapers and his cartoons were syndicated beginning in 1915 - thus began his national popularity. Titles of his prolific works included Mike and Ike, Boob McNutt, Foolish Questions, Lala Palooza, and The Weekly Meeting of the Tuesday Women's Club.

Yet the one that led to his lasting fame involved a character named “Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts.” this is where Goldberg developed his “comical invention,” all of which were labeled schematics of inventions like “The Self-Operating Napkin” - which was included in the Comic Strip Classics series of commemorative U.S. postage stamps.

Goldberg was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his cartoons in 1948. In addition to his Pulitzer Prize in 1948, he received the National Cartoonist Society Gold T-Square Award in 1955, their Reuben Award for 1967, and was given their Gold Key Award (their Hall of Fame) posthumously in 1980. He died in 1970 at the age of 87.

Rather than try to explain to you a Rube Goldberg invention - and because his name and works are copyrighted and trademarked - the best thing for you is to visit his website:

[The Official Rube Goldberg Website] Invention in complexity

Also in honor of this comic inventor is the The National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest. This annual competition is sponsored by the Purdue University campus chapter of Theta Tau, a professional engineering fraternity which should be familiar with invention.

Just to show how wacky engineers can be, really, college students nationwide compete to design a machine that has to use the most complex process to complete a simple task - like put a stamp on an envelope, screw in a light bulb, make a cup of coffee - in at least 20 steps. For example, the finals were held on April 1 for 2006 - but happen each year. The tasks are formidable. The 2006 task was:

Machines will be required to individually cut or shred five sheets of 20 pound, 8 1/2-x-11-inch paper in a minimum of 20 steps.

Information (and even results ) about the competition can be found here:

The National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest [For New Comic Inventors]


Comic inventor William Heath Robinson is thought of in England just like Rube Goldberg was in the US. W. H. Robinson started out dreaming about being a wandering landscape painter in his early years - but stayed home and became an illustrator and one of the greatest comic invention draftsmen in history.

He too lived under the credo of R. G. that Man will always find a complicated means to perform a simple task. He drew outrageous, complicated devices that carried out the simplest tasks. Executed with precision, carried out with supreme logic, his descriptions were delivered in perfect deadpan. His work is copyrighted also so the best I can do is explain them in words.

Robinson published his favorite contraptions in a collection he called “Absurdities.” These wonderful contraptions included:

  • "The Wart Chair. A simple apparatus for removing a wart from the top of the head"

  • "Resuscitating stale railway scones for redistribution at the station buffets"

  • "The multi-movement Tabby Silencer,” which automatically threw water at serenading cats

Most of the machines were run by balding men, wearing glasses, and wearing overalls. Kind of like the Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit character. (Could be where the producer got his main character idea - they were both English, you know)

Frequently powered by steam from boilers, or just kettles heated by candles or oil lamps, the contraptions from this comic inventor had complex pulley structures running knotted lengths of string through them. So today, any rickety machine , barely running, and kept going by full-time attention by one of those bald guys, is called a “Heath Robinson” by the English; just as we in America revere our “Rube Goldberg” invention.

You can find more on comic inventor William Heath Robinson here:

English Invention: William Heath Robinson

Other genres than invention and patent have found use of the thoughts of these two gentlemen.

In the 1999 book Florida Roadkill by Tim Dorsey, a serial killer uses a Rube Goldberg device using a length of wire, an electric motor, a beer can, and the shock wave caused by a space shuttle launch to kill a man with a shotgun.

In a later book in the series, Triggerfish Twist, he uses another such device using wire, gasoline, two floodlights, and a hula hoop to burn someone to death. A grisly use of complexity - and far away from the humor of our star comic inventors.

In Pee-wee's Big Adventure (a 1985 film), Pee-wee uses a Rube Goldberg device to make his breakfast - and this same device was later featured in another movie, Big Fish, as the main character's science fair entry.

The Home Alone movie and its three sequels find the main character often employing the use of Goldberg-esque devices to trap and/or slow down the progress of burglars attempting to ransack his home.

The Back To The Future series of films applied the thought process of these two gentlemen through the character Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown. The best example is the 12 foot tall steam powered machine, that shakes and groans, spouts steam, whistles for 20 seconds or so - and then spits out two little pieces of ice --- a 12 foot ice-maker.

Cartoons are great for Rube Goldberg and W. H. Robinson machines. In Tom & Jerry, Tom used to set elaborate traps for Jerry which always backfired - and so did Wily E. Coyote trying to catch the Roadrunner in Loony Tunes produced episodes.

The cartoon characters are much more in line with the spirit of our comic inventor masters. Complexity is the key. Find the hardest way to accomplish a task - and add a couple of steps. If it works - great. If it doesn’t - it still proves the point - Man works hard to complicate a simple task.