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How Rube Goldberg’s granddaughter keeps the legacy of crazy contraptions alive

In 99 percent of cases, saying that an invention is an enormous waste of time would be a negative. In the instance of Rube Goldberg machines, it’s precisely the point. Heck, the more time it wastes, as imaginatively as possible, the bigger the compliment it is.

“A Rube Goldberg machine is, essentially, an overly complicated, hopefully humorous, chain reaction machine that does a very simple task at the end,” said Jennifer George, a fashion designer and granddaughter of the Rube Goldberg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, author, engineer, and inventor whose chain reaction machines remain his most enduring legacy.

Self-Operating Napkin. 1995. © RGI. This was part of a collection of cartoon stamps that celebrated comic artists and were issued in 1995. Rube Goldberg, Inc.

You’ve almost certainly seen a Rube Goldberg machine, even if you didn’t know what to call it. It’s one of those impossibly intricate, wholly unnecessary, dominoes-style setups where a marble rolls down a course, somehow lights a fuse, which releases a ping pong ball, which bounces into a cup, whose weight now causes it to tip over into a … you get the point.

“You have no idea how many Rube Goldberg machines I watch on a weekly basis,” George told Digital Trends. “In one that I saw recently, the final step was to water a plant. [The creator of this machine], in order to water the plant, turned on a hair dryer that melted ice over a grate so that it dripped down onto the plant as the ice heated up. I never would have thought of that! Sure, I’ve seen hair dryers used. But I’ve never seen hair dryers used to melt ice to water a plant.”

Making complexity an art form

Few of us, in fairness, have. But this is the kind of quirkiness you find yourself dealing with in even the briefest submersion into the world of Rube Goldberg machines. Like Andy Warhol famously elevated the humble Campbell’s Soup can to a work of art through his pop art, so too do Rube Goldberg machines elevate everyday objects — a cup, a musical instrument, a blower for drying hair — into something as fiendishly overly complicated and inventive as a Final Destination movie death trap. Minus the death.

“The irony is that my grandfather never actually built any of these machines that he’s known for,” George said. “He was a cartoonist. He just drew them.”

Goldberg’s machines were, initially, print cartoons that appeared in the 1920s and ’30s. In one typical example, “Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin,” a soup spoon that is raised to the mouth pulls a string, which jerks a ladle, which hurls a cracker, which causes a toucan to leave its perch in pursuit, which tilts the perch, which upsets seeds into a pail, which triggers a pull cord to ignite a lighter, which sets off a rocket, which causes a sickle to slice through a piece of string, which is the catalyst for a pendulum swinging back and forth. The pendulum is attached to a napkin, which wipes the chin of the professor.

“Because he was trained as an engineer, [his designs] would, in theory, work,” George said. “That is if you had enough time and the animals in his machines were cooperative enough. If you could make a rooster cry, and his tears would weigh down a sponge, for instance.”

In the years that have followed, however, many people have taken up the challenge of building actual physical devices inspired by Goldberg’s concepts. Some of the results are so mind-bogglingly brilliant one can only sit back and applaud.

The family business

Jennifer George never wanted to be involved with what has, in some ways, become the family business. Her father, a Broadway and movie producer (his credits include the 1981 film My Dinner With Andre), was in therapy “pretty much off and on his whole life, trying to deal with the fact that he had a genius father,” George said. “Being the son of someone who is so lauded comes with a lot of baggage.”

How To Wash Your Dog Without Getting Yourself Wet, color newsprint. Side Show, circa 1938-1941.© RGI. “This later period of inventions ran as a strip called “Side Show”and were printed in color.” Rube Goldberg, Inc.

Toward the end of her father’s life, when he was around 88, George said that her father’s therapist told him: “You can’t compete with an adjective.” It was a way of saying “stop worrying,” but also an acknowledgment of just how ubiquitous his father’s name has become. (For evidence, try Googling the “Rube Goldberg of” and see how many results come up. George describes the Rube Goldberg machine term as so widely used that it is the “Kleenex of chain reaction.”)

George only became involved when, at her father’s funeral, she met a publisher with whom her father had just signed a deal to produce a coffee table book of her grandfather’s work. She agreed to help him finish the project — and never left. “Little by little, Rube has taken over my entire life,” she said.

But George also said that she has been able to take ownership of the Rube Goldberg legacy. For the past 30 years, the group set up to contain Rube Goldberg’s work has staged an annual Rube Goldberg Machine Contest. George is keen to use this contest, which is aimed predominantly at younger audiences, to get kids excited about STEM. As complex as Rube Goldberg machines are designed to be, George said that they also, in a strange way, make engineering and technology transparent in a way that it isn’t always. That can help make engineering appear real in a way that it sometimes isn’t she said.

Rube Goldberg, Inc.

“I think, in general, most of us are so removed from the way things work, especially things we’re dependent on,” she said. “My iPhone, when it’s not working, I could just scream. I certainly don’t know how to fix it. I can restart it, [but that’s about it.] Now, maybe there’s a tiny little Rube Goldberg machine on the inside that, if I could see it and understand it, I might be able to fix it. But I can’t. I think there’s a very real nostalgia for understanding how things work.”

Embracing the digital age

That is not to say that Rube Goldberg machines are backward-looking, shying away from the digital world in favor of a cozy Norman Rockwell vision of making things during the golden age of American invention. George credits YouTube and the digital sharing of Rube Goldberg machines as one of the key drivers in the current boom of interest.

The Rube Goldberg organization has also partnered with Minecraft to build a virtual platform for Rube Goldberg machine creation. And in a year in which coronavirus has stopped the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest from being held in person, digital technologies will make it possible.

This year’s theme, as announced today? Figure out how to “shake and pour” a box of Nerds candy into a dish using a hideously complex contraption comprising 10 to 20 steps. (You can find out the rules here.) Teachers and parents can register for one of the three divisions: ages 8-11 or ages 11-14, while there’s also a brand new “family division” for this year’s contest. A winner will be announced on April 17, 2021. First place wins a team trophy, $250 plus a matching amount to their favorite charity, and assorted Rube Goldberg swag.

As we said up top, the whole thing is an enormous waste of everybody’s time. (Well, aside from that charitable contribution.) But couldn’t the exact same thing be said for many of the best things in life?

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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