Lovebirds + String + Watering Can + Dog = Rube Goldberg Magic

Jan 4, 2014
Originally published on January 4, 2014 1:38 pm

Many people know Rube Goldberg as an adjective — a shorthand description for a convoluted device or contraption. But Rube Goldberg was a real person — one who earned a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning and who captivated imaginations with drawings of complex chain reactions that completed the simplest of tasks.

Goldberg died in 1970, but Jennifer George, his granddaughter, has collected the zany world he created in a coffee table book, The Art of Rube Goldberg: (A) Inventive (B) Cartoon (C) Genius.

Her grandfather's drawings are "kind of the analog to the digital age," George tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "Any Rube Goldberg machine worth its salt goes viral on the Web today."

"I think he was enraptured by the possibilities of complicated machines," adds Adam Gopnik, a staff writer for The New Yorker who wrote the book's introduction. Much of the appeal of Goldberg's ideas, he says, is how they are both complex, but also visibly tangible.

"My kids love to trace and follow [the drawings]. But the machines that they know best and the ones that they work with most often — computers ... iPhones — are sort of black boxes by comparison with the machines that Rube Goldberg's generation knew.

"So I also think that we look at Goldberg's drawings with a certain amount of nostalgia for a lost era, when our machinery was at least lucid," Gopnik says.

Many of Goldberg's works center on a fictional inventor, Professor Lucifer G. Butts, whose bizarre mishaps help him dream up ideas for machines. In one, Mr. Butts trips at a miniature golf course, giving him an idea for a device that empties ash trays by way of two love birds, a piece of string, a watering can, a shirt, a framed portrait, a dog and a rocket tied to a bag of asbestos.

The line drawing is a parody of actual patent drawings at the time, Gopnik explains. "It's the way drawings of that period, showing how complicated mechanisms really worked — only his always had this beautiful overcharge of needlessness."

The National Cartoonists Society's annual award, the Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year, is named for Goldberg, the society's first president. Not that the honor was enough for him, Jennifer George laughs.

"When he was getting on in years, he was very upset that he had not won a Reuben. And my father had to explain to him, 'But you know, Rube, it's named after you!' "

Ultimately, Goldberg did win his own Reuben in 1967, three years before his death.

Almost 50 years later, Gopnik sees no end in sight for Goldberg's legacy. "We live at the end of the great mechanism," he says. "So we look back at [his ideas] ... with a certain longing for a world as neat, as sharp, as black and white and lucid as Goldberg's world was.

"So I think as long as we have a fascination with machines, with mechanisms, Goldberg's work will go on. "

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Rube Goldberg was a man who became an adjective. You may know nothing about him, but you've likely heard someone describe a convoluted device as a Rube Goldberg contraption. But Rube Goldberg was a real person, one who earned a Pulitzer Prize for political cartooning and captivated imaginations with his drawings of complicated chain reactions that complete the simplest of tasks. Mr. Goldberg died in 1970 but now the zany world he created has been collected in a new coffee table book called "The Art of Rube Goldberg: (A) Inventive (B) Cartoon (C) Genius." Joining us from our New York bureau to talk about the collection is Jennifer George, a writer and jewelry clothing designer. She is also Rube Goldberg's granddaughter. Welcome.

JENNIFER GEORGE: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: We're also joined by New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik who wrote the introduction to "The Art of Rube Goldberg." Hello to you.

ADAM GOPNIK: Hi, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Now, we picked one out to talk about just to sort of illustrate. Adam Gopnik, you want to start by maybe describing - well, how should we do this?

GOPNIK: Well, why don't I, maybe I should, I'll describe the machine as Rube Goldberg describes it.

WERTHEIMER: OK.

GOPNIK: Actually, as always with Rube Goldberg's work, it's sort of a parody of an actual patent office drawing. It's the way drawings of that period, showing complicated mechanisms, really worked. Only his always have this beautiful overcharge of needlessness. So, I'm looking at one right now, where Professor Butts, who is his character, the guy who thought up all of these things, trips over a hazard on a miniature golf course and lands in an idea for an automatic device for emptying ashtrays. A bright full moon, A, causes lovebirds, two little lovebirds on a perch, B, to become romantic. And as they move together, their weight causes the perch, C, to tip and pulls a string, D, which upsets a can, a watering can, E, and sprinkles the woolen shirt. And that causes it to shrink, and therefore draws the size it shrinks a curtain, which exposes a portrait of the master of a little dog. And when the dog sees the master's picture, he's so delighted that he wig-wags his tail for joy and he upsets the ashtray, spilling the ashes and the butts into an asbestos bag, which is marked J, which is attached to a skyrocket. And passing the fuse ignites it and causes rocket to shoot out of the window, disposing of the ashes. You could not imagine a simpler way of disposing of ashes from an ashtray.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Ms. George, you wrote a lovely essay for this book about your grandfather. And you say that when you share his work with schoolchildren, you also like to share little-known facts about him. What do you think people don't know about him that they ought to know?

GEORGE: He had giant ears, I think the biggest ears I've ever seen on a human being. She swam with shoes on. And he also - I begin my essay about how he taught me how to shake hands. And he always, you know, said let them know they're meeting someone. You know, no limp fish. And so I literally crush people's hands to this day when I meet them.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Adam Gopnik, you write that these mechanisms present some fatal, almost unconscious commentary on the madness of science and the insanity of modern invention. Was he satirizing our world when he went about creating something very elaborate to accomplish something very simple?

GOPNIK: I don't think he was satirizing in the sense of parodying with explicit purpose or with some political point. He was having fun. But, yeah, I think that he was enraptured by the possibilities of complicated machines, about the way a car works, right? You turn the key. The gas floods. The oil - I don't know how a car works, but I know that it's complex in that way. And one of the things that fascinates me about it, Linda, is that my kids are very turned on by the drawings. They love to trace and follow them. But the machines that they know best and the ones that they work with most often - computers, right, iPhones - are sort of black boxes by comparison with the machines that Goldberg's generation knew.

WERTHEIMER: Nothing moves.

GOPNIK: Right. Nothing moves. So, I also think that we look at Goldberg's drawings with a certain kind of nostalgia for a lost era when our machinery was at least lucid.

GEORGE: They're kind of the analog to the digital age.

GOPNIK: Yeah, exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Now, I think that many people will be surprised to learn that Rube Goldberg won a Pulitzer Prize as an editorial cartoonist. What was the cartoon that won the prize?

GEORGE: It was a cartoon called "Peace Today" and it shows a giant atomic bomb teetering on the edge of a cliff with a lovely little picket fence around a little house with a few people sitting on the lawn. And below, it's written, world destruction.

GOPNIK: And if you think about it at all, all of these great, wonderful, funny drawings are all about chain reactions. And the ultimate chain reaction of modern science and engineering was the chain reaction that made the atomic bomb.

WERTHEIMER: Jennifer George, we've talked about the machines and some of the other things that your grandfather designed. But I also wanted to ask you about the drawing. I mean, what do you think about the quality of his drawing. It seems to me, as I look through this book, that there are a lot of cartoonists working today who owe a big debt to your grandfather.

GEORGE: Well, it's funny, when you win sort of the Academy Award of cartooning, you win a Reuben, and it's named after Rube. And so when he was getting on in years, he was very upset that he had now won a Reuben. And my father had to explain to him, but, you know, Rube, it's named after you. That didn't' really go over too well with him and ultimately he was awarded his own Reuben. But, yes, the drawings themselves, you know, I make a distinction the early drawings versus the middle period drawings and the later drawings. Really, it's that early and middle period that are so extraordinary and you see his hand on every page. By the later period, he had kind of lost his fine motor skills. The lines are thicker. The other thing is he drew funny. You can look at the drawings and laugh even if you don't read the words, 'cause he just had it in him.

WERTHEIMER: Adam Gopnik, what do you think is his legacy today?

GOPNIK: We live at the end of the great age of the mechanism, and so we look back and then not so much with the bemusement but with a certain longing for a world as neat, as sharp as black and white and lucid as Goldberg's world was. And so I think as long as we have a fascination with machines, with mechanisms, Goldberg's work will go on.

GEORGE: Any Rube Goldberg machine worth its salt goes viral on the web today. So, I think that people are just, they're love Rube Goldberg machines. They love to actually - oh, I get how that words. I mean, we are so hostage to our iPhones and our technology and really truly how does that work, this at least you can figure out when you take a look at it.

GOPNIK: And we're all delighted by the idea that there is an insanely complicated way of achieving something extremely simple.

WERTHEIMER: Adam Gopnik wrote the introduction to the new collection of Rube Goldberg's drawings. Jennifer George gathered it and she has written an essay, which is also in the book. It's called "The Art of Rube Goldberg." Thanks to both of you for speaking with us.

GOPNIK: Thank you.

GEORGE: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.