What is a Rube Goldberg Machine?
Named after American cartoonist Rube Goldberg, a Rube Goldberg machine is a hand-built contraption that uses a chain reaction to carry out a simple task. It performs a very basic job in a confusing and overly-complicated way, with many ridiculous and hilarious steps along the way. Usually, the machines comprise various devices that are linked to trigger one another until the final task is achieved.
Take Goldberg’s Self-Operating Napkin illustration from 1931, for example. The subject, named Professor Butts, wears an elaborate contraption on his head. As he lifts the soup spoon (A) to his mouth, he pulls a string (B), thereby jerking the ladle (C) which throws a cracker (D) past a toucan (E). The bird then jumps towards the cracker which tilts its perch (F). This triggers the seeds (G) to fall into the bucket (H). The weight of the seeds pulls a cord (I), which ignites a lighter (J), which sets off a rocket (K). This causes a hook (L) to cut string (M), which allows a pendulum with the napkin attached to move back and forth, finally wiping the chin of Professor Butts.
This might seem baffling to those who would rather simply pick up the napkin by hand, but Goldberg’s inventions were supposed to be silly. His satirical cartoons were a playful response to the rising Machine Age. “I suppose one or two among you will think that my inventions are a bit ahead of their time,” says Goldberg in Something for Nothing. “A shade fantastic perhaps. All right, go on and say it—down right screwy.”
Although Goldberg’s inventions were mostly fantasy, some of the cartoon machines became reality. They were built purely for the joy of watching them in action. Today, Goldberg’s work continues to inspire those with a love of engineering and a boundless imagination. There’s even an annual
Modern Rube Goldberg Machines
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New York-based Joseph Herscher (of
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Time Machine by Purdue University
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