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Rube and his impact.

It's quite a distinction to have your name in the dictionary. My Webster defines "Rube Goldberg," for instance, as "any very complicated invention, machine, scheme, etc. laboriously contrived to perform a seemingly simple operation."

Reuben L. Goldberg (1883-1970) was born in San Francisco and received an engineering degree at the University of California-Berkeley. He actually worked at it for several months, but switched to drawing for local newspapers. He moved to New York in 1907 where he launched a career that would put a syndicated cartoon, Weekly Inventions, into newspapers across the country. Surely, engineering training came in handy in creating his inventions.


As a young man Goldberg observed a paradigm shift in the American lifestyle, a change that stressed convenience, with the introduction of ever more electrical appliances into the household. He made fun of it in more than one thousand cartoons that ran once a week for about 20 years starting from 1914. The cartoons resonated so well with readers that newspapers reprinted them in later decades. He also drew other cartoons for newspapers to cover sports and world affairs among others. At age 80 he picked up sculpture as his new medium. All in all, he had a 66-year career as an engineer, cartoonist, writer, and sculptor.

The U.S. Postal Service included a Rube Goldberg stamp in its 1997 Comic Strip Classics series. The invention selected was a self-operating napkin involving a bird, levers, strings, and a clock pendulum in a chain reaction that wipes a diner's lips. The Smithsonian Institution hosted an exhibition of his work in 1970. He has inspired artists, including Marcel Duchamp.

At least as important is the influence of Rube Goldberg's work on engineering education. Educational institutions and government agencies such as Argonne National Laboratory have held competitions for students who invent machines that pay homage to Rube Goldberg.

Every year the Theta Tau engineering fraternity at Purdue University challenges students from schools everywhere to build Rube Goldberg inspired machines. The objective has been to build machines to accomplish simple tasks, such as dispensing sanitizer into a hand or affixing a postage stamp to an envelope, in at least 20 steps. The 2007 winning team, from Ferris State University, had 345 steps in their machine.

The students practice teamwork, develop organizational skills, and exercise their creativity. (Information about the "2010 Rube Machine Contest" is available at

In my department last year, a team of senior mechanical engineering students, supervised by Professor Kyle Watson, got their inspiration from Rube Goldberg and developed the "Principles of Engineering Machine," which integrates dozens of mechanical and electrical parts plus memory shape metal in a chain reaction showcasing elements of the engineering curriculum. Patrick Cabebe, a former student of mine, distinguished himself with his answer to an exam problem statement: humorously strike a match in 10 steps.

In 1987, two Swiss artists, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, produced The Way Things Go, a 30-minute movie in which they filmed a chain reaction in the spirit of Rube Goldberg. They used ordinary materials such as tires, wooden ramps, buckets, and kettles in a large warehouse space, and brought to life many aspects of mechanical and chemical engineering from simple machines to projectiles and combustion.

A search for "Rube Goldberg machine" will return scores of You-Tube video clips of amazing contraptions built by creative people.

Whether it is through student competitions or artistic endeavors, Rube Goldberg's inventions have inspired generations with a zest to create machines not only to perform simple tasks but also, more importantly, to entertain, promote creativity, and educate.

The author is a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif.
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Title Annotation:INPUT OUTPUT; Reuben L. Goldberg
Author:Shakerin, Said
Publication:Mechanical Engineering-CIME
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2010
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