Chapter One: Biography
"Rube Goldberg": the name evokes an image of controlled chaos, wild originality, inventiveness, and good-humored laughter. The name has a familiar ring to it, but who was the guy?
The guy was an American genius whose long and fruitful career as an artist, cartoonist, and writer created and changed the way that Americans perceived the oncoming machine age that defined the start of the twentieth century.
Reuben Lucius Goldberg was born in San Francisco, California, on the Fourth of July, 1883. He was the second son of three boys and one surviving girl born to Hannah and Max Goldberg. Rube's mother, never in good health, died when Rube was in his early teens. His father had emigrated from Prussia as a very young man, living first in New York during the Civil War and then working his way west to San Francisco. Max, who never remarried after Hannah's death, maintained a comfortable upper-middle-class family home in San Francisco and raised his four children himself forging a close family unity that lasted all through their lives.
Max Goldberg, never without his traditional Stetson hat from his days as a cattle-ranch owner in Arizona, was a well-known character in San Francisco. The city (and the state) thought of itself as young and vigorous, without the social and class restrictions of the more established East. Max Goldberg dealt in real estate, banking, and the turbulent frontier politics of San Francisco.
Rube attended the prestigious Lowell High School. His nickname "Rube" was short for Reuben, but the nickname also stuck with him because he was left-handed. In those days, a left-handed baseball pitcher was nicknamed a rube.
Rube's passion and main interest from early childhood was drawing and, at age eleven, after a great deal of persistence at wearing down his father's reservations, he began formal art lessons. The drawing and painting classes he took were given by Charles Beall every Friday night at 50 cents each. Rube said, "My parents were not very enthusiastic, either about having an artist in the family, or about permitting an eleven-year-old boy to be out late at night."
A local sign painter by day, Mr. Beall was in his heart a dedicated, although not very successful, fine artist. Rube looked forward to these Friday night art lessons all through the week. "Charles Beall was a very serious teacher," he said. "He never permitted slipshod work and there was no loafing. I studied with Mr. Beall for three years. I never missed a class. We all worked very hard. For me, it was heaven." Just before his high school graduation, Rube announced to his family (and to his father's consternation) that he wanted to go to art school and become a full-time artist.
Max was really upset. To him, art as a hobby was okay, but as a profession-unthinkable! He had to find a way to make Rube agree to go to college to study for a "real" career. Max tried everything to dissuade Rube from ruining his life, including securing a congressman's appointment for Rube to go to West Point. However, he finally recognized that neither straight parental intimidation nor the lure of a military career would have any effect, With his talent for negotiations and deal making, he began to talk to Rube about engineering, knowing that the famous mining barons of the West Coast were paying their top mining engineers annual salaries and bonuses of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Max's most persuasive message to Rube was that the world's greatest artists, masters like Leonardo Da Vinci, were first trained as engineers before they took up their careers as artists. He was able to secure Rube a place in the School of Mining Engineering at the University of California in Berkeley, just across the San Francisco Bay. He assured Rube that with a degree from the university, and with some practical engineering experience in the business world, Rube would be able to make the important decisions about art, his career, and the future much more easily.
Rube agreed to attend the School of Mining Engineering. He lived at home, which meant, on good-weather days, a ninety-minute daily commute each way by cable car to the ferry, with a voyage across the San Francisco Bay to Oakland, and finally a train trip to the campus in Berkeley.
Rube enjoyed the university and its student life. He was popular and made many lifelong friends. He was especially active and well known on campus as a frequent contributor of drawings and cartoons to The Pelican (the then new and somewhat radical student humor magazine). He graduated in 1904.
Although an active alumnus and supporter of the university Rube said that his academic work there had been a waste of his time. However, in later years (and probably because he had two sons -- both college graduates, one an artist, the other a stage and screen producer-writer), he would almost grudgingly admit that the engineering training and experience really had been good for him.
Rube was always being asked where he got his ideas for his Inventions. While he credited the ingenious inventor Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts (the character lie created), Rube would also admit that his inspiration came from two of his professors at the University of California. Samuel B. Christy, dean of the College of Mining, was Rube's stereotype for the pretentious college scientist. Christy, an evangelical convert to the then new science of time-and-motion studies, lectured long, frequently, and with great passion on training workers as to the proper angle for holding and moving a loaded wheelbarrow so they could make more trips and save management money by working harder but more efficiently.
Professor Butts was also modeled after Rube's professor of analytic mechanics and physics, Frederick Slate. Professor Slate could have come right out of a Rube Goldberg cartoon. As Rube said, "In analytic mechanics you were introduced to the funniest-looking contrivances ever conceived by the human mind," and Professor Slate, as Rube described him, "matched his contrivances. He was a thin man with a high squeaky voice, a red beard, protruding Adam's apple and shiny gold-rimmed eyeglasses," all of which generated an ideal prototype for a caricature of a somewhat odd professor of analytical mechanics.
Professor Slate had invented and named a machine that he called the "Barodik." The origin of the name is still unknown, but its purpose, according to the professor, was to allow engineering students to calculate the weight of the earth. Rube described the Barodik as a system of tubes, retorts, hoses, and what appeared to be odds and ends salvaged from a defunct dental college. The Barodik was housed in its own basement laboratory at the university. The professor's engineering students had to use the Barodik for six months' worth of experiments to calculate the weight of the earth. Every student who completed the class got an A, because after adjusting for changing atmospheric conditions, the seasons, and so on, nobody really knew (or perhaps even cared) what the actual weight of the earth was.
Both of these men were merged by Rube to become Professor Butts, who waged his way against inefficiency by solving the problems that plagued the common man: opening a window, remembering to mail a letter, looking for one's glasses or for overshoes on a rainy day Butts's inventions played out the dramas that people perform every day in doing things the hard way.
That Barodik laboratory with Professor Christy and his lectures on working the workers more efficiently seem to have planted seeds in Rube's mind about the consequences of hypercomplication, useless information overload, and reliance on technology that wasn't clearly understood, tested, or even "debugged" before being used. However, the development of that experience into Rube's "Inventions" wouldn't happen until a few years later.
While still a mining engineering student at the University of California, Rube's summer "work experience" assignments: had meant working in the mine shafts and tunnels deep in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for the Oneida gold mines. After a summer of helping set dynamite charges and digging tunnels 2,000 feet below the earth's surface, followed by working in the noise, dust, and chaos of the stamping mills processing the ore, Rube knew that mining engineering was not for him.
Max reminded Rube that family honor meant that a deal was a deal, but instead of insisting Rube go back down into the mines after graduation, he found Rube a job with the San Francisco City Chief Engineer's Office. Rube's salary was set at the very lucrative sum of $100 per month, a top wage for a just-out-of-college young engineer in 1904. The job was mapping and drawing water and sewer pipe plans, "a job just as exciting as it sounds," said Rube.
After working for three months for San Francisco's top sewer and water engineer, Rube decided he had to quit. "No matter what the salary was," said Rube, "I would have been willing to exchange my diploma for one clean sheet of Bristol board...to draw upon."
Facing his father's disappointment, Rube pleaded, "Pa, I can't stand it any longer, I've got to try cartooning." It took courage to stand up to his father, quit his job, and attempt to enter a very competitive world, but Rube was showing the determination and perseverance that would be hallmarks of his life.
He had just one contact. The city editor of the San Francisco Chronicle was the father of a college classmate. He had seen Rube's cartoons for The Pelican and thought Rube's work just might be adapted for his newspaper's readers. He hired Rube as an art assistant at $8 a week.
Rube suffered through rejection after rejection of his work by the newspaper's art editor until his sports cartoons started to be published on a regular basis. As his humorous cartoons delighted more and more readers, he became well known in San Francisco, and gained a raise to $10 a week.
After nine months, Rube left the Chronicle for the San Francisco News-Call Bulletin to replace "TAD" (Thomas A. Dorgan), who had been hired away by William Randolph Hearst and had moved to New York. The Hearst newspapers and syndicate, based in New York City with its national distribution, was an important force in publishing. Hearst had personally recruited a number of San Francisco's top cartoonists, and it became a point of pride in the San Francisco cartoon world to have been recruited by WRH, Himself. This was at the start of the newspaper ways. American newspapers were fiercely competitive and publishers used their cartoonists as a major circulation-building weapon.
Surviving the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, Rube and his cartoons continued to grow in popularity, but only on the West Coast. it was now 1907 and Rube still hadn't received a call from Hearst to go to New York, the epicenter of publishing, and cartoonist heaven.
Rube, at twenty-four, decided that he had reached the limits of what he could expect to accomplish on the West Coast. Even though he didn't have an offer from Hearst (or any other New York publisher), Rube took his courage in hand, and went east to New York City.
Max Goldberg, now proud of Rube's work and reputation in San Francisco, backed his decision, although he too couldn't understand why Hearst hadn't called Rube. In Rube's words, "My security, along with my work, was a diamond ring that Pa gave me. He said I could sell it for a train ticket if I needed money to come home."
At the start of his national career, Rube found New York City exciting, but not as friendly and receptive to him and his work as San Francisco had always been. After arriving in New York jobless, with only his portfolio of cartoons, Rube's first weeks there brought unsuccessful interviews with the major New York City newspapers. Aside from a few San Francisco transplants, nobody knew him or cared about his work. Just as he was thinking seriously about using his diamond ring for a ticket home, Rube was hired at the end of 1907, not as a star cartoonist as he had hoped, but as a junior sports artist-cartoonist for the New York Evening Mail.
He was now on his way, and it was the start of a very fast ride. 1909 saw the debut and almost instant success of his first widely acclaimed cartoon series, Foolish Questions. When Rube asked readers to suggest their own Foolish Questions for him to draw as a way of showing his editors he was getting fan mail, hundreds of letters poured in. The fans' participation and the ideas they generated helped to establish Rube Goldberg as a nationally known name. By 1911, along with his regular daily sports and other cartoons, he had drawn almost four hundred cartoons in the Foolish Questions series alone, had published his first book with that title, and had licensed a boxed "Foolish Questions" card game that was a great success.
Until Max's death at well past ninety, whenever Rube wanted to negotiate a new syndicate contract, he would send for him. Max never lost his zeal and talent for "deal-making," especially when it concerned his son. He would get on a train in San Francisco and travel across the country to New York to sit down with the syndicate people and negotiate the best deal he could for Rube.
Max introduced a number of contractual innovations to the eastern newspaper executives. Unlike other cartoonists, Rube would not sell his drawings or his original characters outright to his publisher as was the custom. Rather, he would only license the use of his work for publication or syndication. Regardless of who published his work, Rube would always own the characters and properties, and would continue to receive royalties even if he changed publishers.
After his successful negotiations, Max would stay on and visit with Rube and his family for a few weeks, and then, still wearing his Stetson hat, would board the train back to San Francisco, where his daughter and other two sons lived.
In an era without television and with commercial radio in its infancy daily newspapers were the prime information source for everyone. Like the other leading cartoonists of his time, Rube was also appearing onstage in the major East Coast vaudeville theaters as a personality, drawing his funny cartoons onstage from subjects suggested by the audience.
Starting in 1915 and through 1916, Rube created and drew a series of short animated cartoons for silent motion picture release. Sixteen pictures (or frames) were needed for each foot of film, and a reel of film was about 1,000 feet, so thousands of pictures were needed for just a few minutes of on-screen entertainment. Rube was a perfectionist about his art as his drawings of that period illustrate. He was just not able to accept using other artists or assistants to draw his images, especially if he felt that these artists couldn't reach his standards. This meant that he had to draw everything himself. His personal labor and the resultant time required to make one reel of film for commercial release added up to a truly daunting commitment on Rube's part for a ten-minute show.
Rube would work on his daily newspaper cartoons five or six hours a day, and then dash to spend another ten hours doing his animation drawings at the studio before going back to the newspaper to do last-minute changes on his sports and editorial work. Working fifteen- to twenty-hour days, Rube had to make a choice between animated motion pictures and newspapers. His health was suffering, along with his regular newspaper and syndication work. His social life was in shambles, further complicated by his meeting and falling in love with his future wife, Irma. He chose, with some hesitation, to give up the new medium of animated films and to continue his expanding and even more lucrative syndication and newspaper work.
By 1915, Rube's cartoons were syndicated nationally and printed in newspapers all around the world. By then, even Hearst was buying his work, and Rube was earning a phenomenal $100,000 per year (1.7 million in today's dollars) just from the syndication of his drawings and his books.
The first of Rube's best-known series, "The Inventions," was published in 1914 and quickly attracted a wide readership. other cartoonists, like Frank Crane in his "Willie Westinghouse Edison Smith' drawings (1900 to 1914), Clare Victor Dwiggins (Dwig) in his "Ophella and Her Slate" or "School Days" (1909 to 1911), and W. Heath Robinson in England, also used inventions. However, Rube's work benefited from his engineer's eye and was distinguished by his use of people, animals, flowers, and natural forces like the sun, rain, and other elements as part of the working mechanics of the invention.
Rube came of age during America's heroic Age of Invention, which lasted from the end of the Civil War until about 1920. Like the railroad, the automobile, and the telephone, Rube's inventions compressed time -- the time required for a flower to grow, for a shirt to shrink, for the sun to heat water. In Rube's world, events that once took minutes or hours happened virtually instantaneously...in the same amount of time, it seemed, for a new marvel to emerge from a hitherto unknown inventor's workshop. Rube's inventions echoed the Machine Age ideals of inventiveness, but, in their unnecessary complexity, mocked its zeal for efficiency.
Americans were very interested in inventions and inventing. It was the road to almost instant financial success for many an inventor who worked on inventions at night at home. Everyone was trying to invent the next electric light bulb, the telephone, or other new consumer product, and become a millionaire overnight, like Thomas Edison.
Rube's Invention cartoons were original in concept and unique in style. They had the same clarity of detail required for government patent application drawings. Rube's Inventions were interesting visually humorous, and brilliantly satirical, while retaining an authenticity and a timeless quality People of all ages enjoyed tracing the clever "A to B to C" of an Invention, and the improbable end result always brought surprise and amusement.
Rube's personal fascination with the emerging and quickly changing Machine Age technologies, combined with his solid training as an engineer, reinforced the impact and appeal of his invention drawings-his best-known and longest running series. He created an average of at least one of these truly inventive statements about living in the machine age every week during the next fifty years.
The Inventions inspired masterpieces in other media. Certainly, Rube's friend Charlie Chaplin must have looked at them as a key inspiration for his film Modern Times. Indeed, much Hollywood material-visual jokes in particular-can be traced back to Rube's Inventions.
While the Inventions series took off, Rube, now with a wife and two young sons, Tom and George, was back at his drawing board creating new strips. During his long career, Rube produced more than sixty different cartoon series (many running for more than twenty years), ranging from continuous story strips like Boob McNutt, Bobo Baxter and Lala Palooza to theme panels like Luke and His Uke, The Tuesday Ladies' Club, Father Was Right, Mike and Ike, Foolish Questions, and I'm The Guy, as well as a full spectrum of cartoons dealing with politics, sports, and cultural events in America and the world.
The mid-1930s saw major changes in how the public received not only Rube's work but cartoons and the funny pages in general. After almost thirty years at the top of his profession, Rube saw public taste for his panels and strip cartoons change. The public wanted continuing adventure, pathos, and drama played out by the same main characters week after week, with a lot less of the slapstick, gags, gentle satire, and instant humor of Rube's work. He tried to adapt by bringing out new continuity strips and characters, but they lacked the real Rube insight and wit of past years. Then, to compete with newsmagazines that featured photography (and especially action sports photography), newspapers started to publish more and more photographs.
Publishers moved the daily cartoons from the popular sports pages and the other major sections of the newspaper to the specially created funny pages. They also limited the space available for each cartoon to a narrow three- or four-panel strip. Even Rube's latest Inventions were reduced in size in tile dailies, and eventually in the Sunday pages as well.
Rube felt these changes were unacceptable, so in 1938, with much drama and publicity, he announced that he was giving up drawing comic strips and was going to devote himself to his writing. His short stories and feature articles had always been well received in national magazines, especially if he also did the drawings that illustrated the story. He also would continue to take on advertising assignments.
Rube could easily afford to do this in 1938. Advertisers and their agencies paid highly for his original work, Rube's drawings promoted products ranging from office equipment and pharmaceuticals to soft drinks. Furthermore, he was earning income as his past work was being reprinted, and the Inventions were finding new audiences. He also continued to draw and syndicate his Sunday page, called Rube Goldberg's Sideshow, a weekly collection of color cartoons, strips, quizzes, and word games. This also included Inventions that were done in a much more simplified and compressed style than his past drawings.
No longer creating daily cartoon strips, Rube wrote for popular magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, and Vanity Fair. He played a lot of golf, his favorite sport, and wrote for golf magazines. He appeared on radio shows and in newsreels and worked on two feature films. He continued writing songs and even wrote a play. However, nothing seemed to have the same flow of creative adrenaline that a newspaper deadline gave him.
The famed sportswriter and author Grantland Rice described his friend Rube best: "Rube is a man of charm, humor, brains, imagination, the needed amount of humility and the plain old-fashioned touch that only regular people understand."
Rube probably agreed with each adjective, for while he was never arrogant or egotistical, he hardly ducked from being the center of any crowd. When attention focussed on him (as it inevitably did), he took the center of the stage and held his audience captive.
Of average build, dignified and erect, Rube personified the sportsman-golfer. Never did he show the politician's forwardness, and was almost shy until he was approached or approached others. Then, said one acquaintance, "From the first minute, you called him 'Rube,' and you knew he was interested in what you were saying."
To quote Rice again: "There may be greater all-round guys than Rube. But I'm sorry. I never met one."
Rube was a celebrity whose close friends were other American icons of their time-personalities like Will Rogers, Grantland Rice, Jack Dempsey, Jimmy Durante, Charlie Chaplin, and his fellow members of the Friars, the Lambs, the Dutch Treat, the Society of Illustrators, and the many other clubs that were part of Rube's New York life. He was a popular after-dinner speaker and an accomplished performer. Rube did not have the day-to-day worries of earning a living for his family or himself, but like many truly creative people, he wanted to work at what he loved.
It was soon apparent to everyone that Rube missed the pace, the applause, the action and notoriety of newspaper cartooning for a worldwide fan base. An old friend, the general manager of The New York Sun, called and asked if Rube would ever consider doing editorial cartoons. After thinking it over (and, according to friends, quickly deciding to accept), he waited a day to call back and indicate he might be interested in trying,
This opened a new chapter for Rube, beginning after his fifty-fifth birthday. He started doing three editorial-page drawings a week for the Sun, with topics of his own choosing. Rube chose a simple and more powerful drawing style, a departure from his trademark of the fine line and draftsman's approach. His editorial cartoons carried their message with directness and impact. He even used his Inventions to defend the taxpayer against the "enemy"- entrenched bureaucrats and politicians. During World Way 11 and its aftermath, his drawings were strong editorial statements against America's enemies, atomic war, poverty and corruption. Rube was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartoons in 1948 for his "Peace Today" drawing, published July 22,1947, which commented on the insecurity the average person and his family felt living in an age of atomic bombs.
In 1950 Rube moved from The New York Sun to Hearst's New York Journal as their main editorial cartoonist. His last editorial cartoon appeared in 1964, after Rube decided not to sign a new contract with the Hearst Newspaper Group. He said he finally wanted a release from the demands of a daily deadline. But in reality Rube at eighty was about to start another new career.
Sculpture had always interested him. He was an admirer of Honore Daumier, who had evolved, over his career, from caricature drawing to sculpture. Rube liked the concept of giving his drawings a third dimension so the viewer could look in back of the figures he created. To Rube, as to other artists, this idea proved very compelling. At the age of eighty he took one lesson in sculpture from a local sculpture studio and inside of a year had his first show (a sellout), at New York's prestigious Hammer Galleries. Rube held a number of gallery shows over the next few years and sculpted an estimated three-hundred works, all sold to private collectors, galleries, and museums.
Rube continued to remain active in the cartooning world as the older statesman and permanent honorary president of the National Cartoonists Society that he had helped found. In 1967 he was awarded the Reuben (named after and, of course, designed by him). This, the highest award given to a cartoonist by the society, is still annually presented to a cartoonist voted the "best" by his peers.
In 1970 the National Museum of History and Technology of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington honored Rube Goldberg with a magnificent retrospective of his work entitled "Do It the Hard Way" This was the only one-man show ever given to a living artist-cartoonist-humorist, and it showed the vision and creative scope of Rube's work over almost seventy years. Rube died on December 7,1970, just two weeks after the gala opening of this national celebration of his talent and dedication.
Even after his death, Rube's presence has never left the public eye. Rube's work is also shown today at various museums and science centers throughout the country. There have been memorial exhibitions at the University of California, where his archives are held, and an exhibition at Williams College Art Museum, which also has a collection of Rube's work. In 1995 an outstanding show was held at the Salander-O'Reilly Galleries in New York City on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death. Throughout his working life (almost seventy years), Rube authored ten books as well as a great number of short stories and feature articles for magazines. His cartoons are still being reprinted. A documentary and a feature film about Rube are both in development now.
Rube was also honored by having a U.S. postage stamp issued commemorating the Inventions as part of the Classic Comic Series. Of course, the stamp commemorating Rube had his name blazoned across it. He was the only cartoonist so honored; the others carried the name of their character on the front of the stamp, but not the name of its creator.
The Official Rube Goldberg Web site on the Internet at www.yubegoldberg.com is constantly being accessed, not only by interested adults but, most often, by boys and girls from elementary middle, and high schools who are given simple machine projects by their teachers as classroom assignments that translate into their designing Rube Goldberg Invention Machines.
Rube Goldberg's inventions continue to inspire regional Rube Goldberg Machine Contests. Young engineering students from universities and colleges all over North America work to complete and run these inventive machines to meet the national challenge in the most complicated way possible. At the university level these local contest-winners meet at the annual national contest held at Purdue University. High schools are also now competing in rapidly expanding statewide contests that will lead to a high school national competition in the future.
Rube's name is quoted on a daily basis by the media in newspapers, magazines, radio, and television as an adjective to describe over-complicated, red-taped, complex rules, and other bureaucratic blunders, such as our "Rube Goldberg tax system" (Congressional Record). Here are a few more recent Rube Goldberg mentions:
The New York Times: "Rube Goldberg Meets Government Planners: Overhauling the Federal Milk-Pricing System."
Newsweek: "Rube Goldberg in Silicon Valley. Could This Contraption One Day Be in Wide Use to Clean Air?"
Time: "Federal officials examined the aircraft and decided it owed more to Rube Goldberg than Orville Wright."
On a more positive note, Rube's name was used by NASA engineers to describe their very successful Mars Sojourner vehicle as a "Rube Goldberg contraption" put together on a very tight budget and with a lot of hope. Rube would have been enormously proud to have been part of America's first trip to Mars.
In his own way, Rube resembled quantum physicists who turn classical notions of time and space topsy-turvy. Physicists do it with digits. Rube did it with dogs, birds, people, plants, levers, wheels, gears, and pulleys. By disobeying Mother Nature, Rube Goldberg took his readers on wonderful journeys to his own delightful universe.
Text Copyright © 2000 by Maynard Frank Wolfe