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The Rube Goldberg Machine

Posted Tuesday, July 29, 2014 at 1:54 PM

"Rube Goldberg was a cartoonist and an engineer, but his name has come to be an adjective defined as accomplishing something simple through complicated means."

The Rube Goldberg Machine

PostedTuesday, July 29, 2014 at 2:25 PM

Xiecun (Gloria) Li
Xiecun (Gloria) Li
The Rube Goldberg Machine

Rube Goldberg was a cartoonist and an engineer, but his name has come to be an adjective defined as accomplishing something simple through complicated means. 

Author: Xiecun (Gloria) Li

Known as the most popular cartoonist of the Machine Age, engineer Reuben “Rube” Goldberg was born on Independence Day in San Francisco in 1883. He worked as a Water and Sewers Department engineer and a sports cartoonist before he moved to New York City to draw political cartoons. The adjective Rube Goldberg was derived from a crazily popular series of comic strip drawings called “Inventions” that Goldberg designed in the 1920s. Many revolve around the carelessness of Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butt, whose love life is as laborious as the machines he designs. Goldberg created many a complicated contraption in his comics, most to complete simple tasks. In one, an invention to put the cat out at night, includes using a set of scales, a boot and a retractable arm, with another attaching a hammer to a fishing line to knock out the fish first, thus making it easier to catch.

His designs perhaps come to life most fittingly in a Tom and Jerry cartoon, where Tom’s sketch of the perfect mousetrap “Designs on Jerry” has Jerry grabbing the bait cheese, thus pulling the attached string on an alarm clock to trigger other zillion reactions, ultimately releasing the heavy safe made cage hanging above Jerry’s head. Did it work? Of course not. The same can be said for Goldberg’s designs in the modern day world. In Machine-Age Comedy, author Michael North notes that “the standard Rube Goldberg device inhabits a world without electricity, where almost all power sources are natural: wind, water, or gravity.”[1] In fact, aside from the similarity between Goldberg’s famous cartoons and the wave motors of 1890s, and an attempt by the Wave-Power Air-Compressing Company to harness the power of the Pacific Ocean by means of a pier-like contraption, his designs have little relevance Professor Lucifer Buttstoday.[2] 

However, many high school students are introduced to the challenges of creating their own Rube Goldberg contraptions through science and engineering projects. So why learn about Goldberg if his contraptions aren’t really applicable in the modern world? To get hands-on experience with engineering and design. In my AP Chemistry class, we built Rube Goldberg machines, and my partner and I designed a racetrack of sorts that would eject cars out of the track and onto a desk-sized piece of wood. All of this involved drills, logs, glue guns, several Hot Wheels, pulleys, balloons, steel wool, a 9-volt battery, a bucket, vinegar, strings and a beaker full of acid. It was the definition of accomplishing something simple through complicated means, but was also an incredibly fun challenge, especially considering I’d never used chain saws or drills before, nor built anything like what we created.

The comedy and humor of Rube Goldberg’s machines are not the physical tools he uses, but the concept that “human automatism is not just incidental but quite basic to them.” [1] If you think about it, a machine, convoluted or not, is a human creation. We humans put life and emotions into what we manually build. Goldberg lived in the Machine Age, where these kinds of manually made machines were disappearing in the face of increasing industrialization. His drawings and inventions represent nostalgia for the world of small, intimate, man-made creations and stand against those being mass-produced in factories—after all, what he valued most was that elusive spirit of human creativity.


[1] Michael North, Machine-Age Comedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)

[2] Alexis Madrigal, Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2011)