July marks the anniversary of the birth of Rube Goldberg, American cartoonist, inventor, sculptor, and civil engineer, best known for his drawings depicting complex gadgets and machines that satirize technology.
Reuben Garrett Lucius “Rube” Goldberg was born to Prussian immigrants July 4, 1883, in San Francisco, the third of seven children. At a young age, Rube Goldberg embraced tracing and drawing. At 4, he traced illustrations from the humorous book “History of the United States.” Several years later as an adolescent, he took art lessons with a sign painter, his only formal art training.
Goldberg’s desire to pursue art as his lifework was not well received by his parents. His father, who was the San Francisco fire and police commissioner, encouraged him to pursue engineering. After graduating from San Francisco’s Lowell High School in 1900, Goldberg entered the School of Mining Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. While at Berkeley, Goldberg honed his artistic skills, submitting cartoons to the campus humor magazine The Pelican. He noted in later years that when one of his drawings was accepted, it gave him “a greater thrill than a good mark in calculus or geology.” In 1904, Goldberg received his bachelor’s degree in engineering.
Goldberg’s summer work experience laboring in mine shafts and tunnels within the Sierra Nevada Mountains and in ore processing mills convinced him that mining engineering was not his future. After completing his degree, Goldberg found work at the San Francisco City Engineer’s Office, Water and Sewers Department. His task was to draw plumbing diagrams along with a description of the pressure variances. This work may have had a strong influence on his “inventions” that later brought him fame. Although the $100 per month salary was lucrative for a recently graduated engineer, Goldberg quit within six months, to pursue a career in cartooning.
Goldberg was hired as a sports cartoonist by the San Francisco Chronicle for $8 per week, then later took a position with the San Francisco Bulletin. After relocating to New York in 1907, his cartoons entered syndication in 1915, earning him national fame. A prolific artist, Goldberg produced several cartoon series simultaneously, including Mike and Ike (They Look Alike), Boob McNutt, Foolish Questions, Lala Palooza, and The Weekly Meeting of the Tuesday Women’s Club. The most popular character that he created was the inventive, inquisitive, and curious “Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts,” who was modeled after Berkeley College of Mining Dean Samuel Christy and physics professor Frederick Slate. Through his alter ego, Professor Butts, Goldberg exhibited detailed illustrations of complicated machinery that was linked together to perform simple tasks, now referred to as a Rube Goldberg Machine. Professor Butts’ inventions included a self-tipping hat, automatic weight reducing machine, and self-operating napkin, which was commemorated on a U.S. stamp in 1995.
In 1931, the Merriam-Webster dictionary adopted the phrase “Rube Goldberg,” defined as accomplishing something simple through complicated means. This phrase made Goldberg the first person to be listed in the dictionary as an adjective. In 1948, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his editorial cartoon, “Peace Today,” which conveyed a warning against atomic weapons. Goldberg is the namesake of the Reuben Award, which, since 1954, has been awarded to the Cartoonist of the Year by the National Cartoonists Society.
After his retirement from publishing in 1964, Goldberg found a new way of spoofing the human experience through sculpture. While his new art form did not receive the acclaim of his cartoons, his detailed style was still evident in his life-like three-dimensional depictions.
Goldberg died Dec. 7, 1970, in Hawthorne, NY, at 87 and is interred at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Hawthorne. He continues to inspire students and future engineers today through competitions such as the National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest and Goodyear’s Rube Goldberg Challenge. Both competitions challenge students to design a clever, complex contraption using science, technology, engineering, and math principles to perform everyday tasks, such as erasing a chalkboard, opening an umbrella, zipping a
zipper, and filling a blimp.