The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Art of Rube Goldberg

Among history’s people who became nouns is American cartoonist Rube Goldberg (July 4, 1883 – December 7, 1970), legendary inventor of the eponymous chain reaction machines that now bear the status of pop culture tropes. But like a number of other celebrated creators with lesser-known talents in a medium other than what they are primarily known for, Goldberg was also a prolific humorist, political cartoonist, sculptor, writer, and illustrator. In the lavish coffee-table tome The Art of Rube Goldberg: (A) Inventive (B) Cartoon (C) Genius (public library), writer and designer Jennifer George, Goldberg’s granddaughter, cracks open the treasure chest of her grandfather’s diverse creative contributions, ranging from his first published drawings in his high school newspaper to his Pulitzer-Prize-winning political cartoons, by way of his iconic machines, his nearly fifty-thousand cartoons published in daily newspapers, his sculptures, and his advertising work. Alongside the 700 color illustrations are never-before-revealed memorabilia, letters, patents, and other ephemera, as well as contextualizing essays by notable comics historians, that capture the spirit and singular mind of this extraordinary mid-century Renaissance man.

In the introductory essay, cleverly titled “The Goldberg Variations,” The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik writes:

Two very different pillars mark the edges of the Goldbergian experience. On the one hand, his work delights children, and always will, with the excess and overcharge of his inventions — the simple thing done with absurd yet plausible complexity. on the other, there seems, to adult eyes, to be in his work some fatal, almost unconscious, commentary on the madness of science and the insanity of modern invention.


Yet much of the additional charm of Goldberg’s machines, more than might be apparent on initial inspection, rises from their observational precision, their period detail, their lovely inventory of a now-vanished time — one that saw itself as perfectly modern but now looks, inevitably, touchingly past.

Among Goldberg’s best creations was his weekly comic strip, “The Inventions of Professor Lucifer G. Butts, A.K.,” which ran exclusively in Collier’s magazine between 1929 and 1931.

At its most engaging, the Goldberg machine, just as its comic-strip counterpart, is an interactive wonderbox of show-and-tell, embodied storytelling that pulls you in as you pull on its tabs and levers. And though Goldberg, whom Gopnik describes as “an artist who followed the logic of the machine to its comic climax,” famously said of his inventions that they exercised “man’s capacity for exerting maximum effort to accomplish minimum results,” surely beneath this self-deprecation he must have known — taken pride in, appreciated — that the ultimate result was maximum wonder, even as Goldberg devised elaborate ways of accomplishing the simplest of tasks, from cooling a plate of soup to opening a bottle of wine. More than that, his ultimate message was that process is infinitely more interesting than product — a notion that has taken even greater cultural decline since his day, as we plow ahead in the era of personal productivity at the expense of presence.

Goldberg, indeed, was a cartoonist at heart — and with that came the necessary faculty of snark and parodic cultural commentary. Alongside the whimsy of his machines and the humor of his drawings was a darker narrative about the dangers of mechanization and the perilous automation of even the simplest human actions. What is the line, he implicitly asked, between becoming fascinated by machines and becoming machines? Goldberg was also a keen observer of the human condition, his elaborate chain reactions for accomplishing simple tasks speaking to our shared tendency to do things the hard way.

Like Dr. Seuss, Goldberg produced a number of political cartoons and PSAs:

Of those, he said:

A political cartoon is a pictorial metaphor. You must take a drawing that is like the thought you want to express. And this drawing must not be merely an illustration but a symbol or group of symbols.

Two decades after Alex Steinweiss pioneered the album cover and a generation before R. Crumb brought comics to it, Goldberg’s cartoons appeared on records, such as this 1959 Play-Tonics album:

Goldberg created one of his earliest drawings, “The Old Violinist,” in 1895, with detail and artistic precision remarkable for a twelve-year-old boy:

He even illustrated for kids — here’s a page from his 1946 children’s book, Music in the Zoo:

While The Art of Rube Goldberg: (A) Inventive (B) Cartoon (C) Genius is an absolute treat from cover to cover, one of the book’s most charming touches is the cover itself, which houses a miniature pull-tab-operated Rube Goldberg machine based on Goldberg’s 1939 Side Show cartoon, “Simple Ways to Get Fresh Orange Juice Upon Awakening.” It is the nature of our modern mechanization that the screen robs this analog masterpiece of all its whimsy, but I’ve adapted it into an animated GIF nonetheless, to give even a tiny taste of the real thing:

Images courtesy of Abrams ComicArts © Heirs of Rube Goldberg; animated GIF by Maria Popova

Published December 4, 2013




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