What Rube Goldberg’s remarkable cartoons reveal about design.
The machine was ready. With its button pressed, a pendulum began to swing, knocking a pinball off its position, to roll down a shelf and into a cup, depressing a lever which bumped a gerbil, causing it to scurry to the other side of its cage, pulling a string tied to its waist, triggering effect after effect until finally, the page of a newspaper is turned.
This is a Goldberg Machine. It’s the label given to any unnecessarily complicated device used to perform a simple action. These crazy mechanisms have cropped up in such diverse realms as music videos, engineering competitions, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, and even last year’s controversial commercial for GoldieBlox.
Such contraptions are named after Rube Goldberg, a cartoonist who began drawing outlandishly complicated machines in Collier’s magazine in the nineteen-teens. It was a time when Taylorism and economic efficiency were the buzzwords of the day and advertisers were just beginning to manufacture the desire for modern “timesaving” devices like washing machines and vacuum cleaners.
But Goldberg, who’d actually studied as an engineer in college, poked fun at the illusion of quick fixes and new technologies that seemed to make life more complicated, not less. Almost immediately, his bi-monthly cartoons of utterly improbable inventions became a national phenomenon and entered the popular imagination.
There’s the “Self-Operating Napkin” involving 13 steps (and a parrot) to wipe soup from the user’s chin, and a “Simple Alarm Clock” that takes a pistol, balloon, perfume bottle, cannon ball, and bucket of ice to wake the sleeper.
The magic of Goldberg’s elaborate contrivances is how they tread the line between improbability and inevitability. So much of technology today is hidden inside sleek metal rectangles or in the ether of the cloud. There’s something fascinating about seeing causation at work, witnessing a series of complex actions performed with help only from gravity and momentum.
Design is so often about reducing friction, sometimes to the detriment of delight. But Goldberg Machines charmingly emphasize process over product, the journey over the destination.
Got you hooked? Here’s More:
Something for Nothing
Rube Goldberg stars in this 1940’s short on how gasoline powers cars
Brooklyn’s Rube Goldberg
The New York Times talks with kinetic artist Joseph Herscher
This Too Shall Pass Floor Map
Explore a diagram of Ok Go’s Goldbergian music video machine