Who is Rube Goldberg?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Reuben or Rube Goldberg was a famed cartoonist, especially known for his political cartoons, and the Rube Goldberg machine, a variety of cartooned designs of exceptionally complicated machines that did very simple things. He was also known for his cartoon series, like Boob McNutt, and Mike and Ike, and for the 1930s feature film Soup to Nuts which launched the careers of the Three Stooges.

Rube Goldberg completed college at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1904.
Rube Goldberg completed college at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1904.

Born in 1883 in San Francisco, Rube Goldberg attended Lowell High School, which has the distinction of being the oldest public school west of the Mississippi. He completed college at the University of California, Berkeley in 1904, with a degree in engineering, a more practical degree that his father insisted he major in. He only worked for the City of San Francisco as a civil engineer for a short time. Probably the greatest way his engineer training showed was in the later creation of the Goldberg machines.

Rube Goldberg nursed not only a passion for cartooning but also the talent needed to be successful at it. Though he first worked as a sports cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, he was scooped up by the San Francisco Bulletin in the mid 1900s to work as a political and general cartoonist. In 1907, Goldberg moved to New York and freelanced for a number of newspapers. His work slowly gained recognition, and by 1915, he had earned national recognition.

In 1916 he married Irma Seeman, and the couple had two boys, who over the years would add their own contributions to the art and entertainment industries. Goldberg insisted the boys change their last names when his political commentary during WWII began to inspire vicious hate mail. The two boys changed their last name to George. Thomas George became well known as a painter, and George W. George both wrote and produced films.

As mentioned, Goldberg machines, designed by his cartoon character Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, were his most memorable drawings. These machines might have as their end goal simple tasks like opening a window or retrieving mail. They were a comment on the danger of any type of system, especially bureaucratic, which achieved simple things in the most difficult way possible. You’ll still hear modern references to the Rube Goldberg machine, when people look at the way a simple task is made overly complicated by bureaucracy.

Goldberg’s understanding of how American fascination with technology tends to produce lazier folk is echoed more seriously in today’s problems with obesity. We do have a variety of machines that do simple work for us — like changing the channels on our televisions — which makes us a less active nation.

In the late 1940s, Goldberg founded the National Cartoonist Society, and he also received numerous rewards during his career. These include the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for an insightful drawing depicting the deep concerns of nuclear proliferation that has begun to rise at the end of WWII. His work has been showcased in numerous museums, and one of his Goldberg machines was commemorated on a US postage stamp. His career ended with his death in 1970, but his legacy lives on in many Rube Goldberg machine contests, where students, high school or college, try to design complex machines that do virtually nothing.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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