Rube Goldberg's marvelous machines
Cartoonist Rube Goldberg's absurdly complex mechanisms for achieving easy results are so ingrained in popular culture that the artist/engineer's name appears in the dictionary as an adjective. A new book highlights his happy mutant approach to engineering. In the midst of the Machine Age, Rube Goldberg poked fun at America's seeming obsession with "building a better mousetrap" through intricate diagrams of chain reactions employing gears, pulleys, shirt-eating moths, burning candles, canaries, and even opossums. A beautiful new hardcover collection of his strips, The Art of Rube Goldberg: (A) Inventive (B) Cartoon (C) Genius, hits shelves today. Along with a visual history of his career, the book also includes selections and commentary by Goldberg's granddaughter Jennifer George, an intro by Adam Gopnik, essays, rare photos and ephemera, and a paper-engineered cover:
But who was Goldberg?
Born in San Francisco in 1883, the art-obsessed Goldberg pursued engineering at UC Berkeley only at the insistence of his conservative parents. Ironically though, it was in a UC Berkeley School of Mining Engineering class that the artist found what would eventually be recognized as his biggest inspiration.
"In analytic mechanics you were introduced to the funniest-looking contrivances ever conceived by the human mind," Goldberg once said.
Case in point: Slate's Barodik, a surreal system of tubes and retorts in a basement laboratory designed to enable students to calculate the weight of the earth. Professor Slate, along with then-dean of the College of Mining, was also the inspiration for Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, one of Goldberg's most loved cartoon characters.
After a summer job digging mining tunnels and a post-graduation gig diagramming San Francisco sewers, Goldberg resolved to pursue his first love of cartooning. Successful sports cartoonist stints at the San Francisco Chronicle and the News-Call Bulletin led to a skyrocketing career with the New York Evening Mail, New York Journal and numerous popular magazines of the day. His comic commentary on the zeitgeist culminated in a 1948 Pulitzer Prize for his "Peace Today" editorial cartoon, seen here, that in a single panel summarized the nation's fear of the atom bomb. But the artist remains best known for his Inventions series, immortalized in 1995 on a US postage stamp twenty-five years after his death, celebrating the centennial of his Collier's newspaper comic. The stamp was based on this strip that appeared in Collier's on September 26, 1931:
Perhaps the legacy that would have most delighted Goldberg though are the multitude of high school and college courses and contests around the world bearing his name and his sense of engineering for the fun of it. The following selection of strips from the book give a taste of Rube Goldberg's happy mutant approach to engineering.
Original art for “The Inventions of Professor Lucifer G. Butts, A.K.” from Collier’s (c. 1930–31).
From “The Inventions of Professor Lucifer G. Butts, A.K.,” created exclusively for Collier’s from 1929 to 1931. The first strip in the series, January 26, 1929.
From “The Inventions of Professor Lucifer G. Butts, A.K.,” created exclusively for Collier’s from 1929 to 1931. October 12, 1929.
All images above from The Art of Rube Goldberg: (A) Inventive (B) Cartoon (C) Genius, Selected and with commentary by Jennifer George; Introduction by Adam Gopnik, Published by Abrams ComicArts.
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