His inexhaustible reservoir of elaborate contraptions that mutated simple tasks (lighting a pipe, changing a diaper, killing mosquitoes) into madcap and complicated feats of ingenuity made him a rich and famous star, and an adjective in the American lexicon. As Goldberg, who lived from 1883 to 1970, said in 1930: “In black and white, I consider myself the most prolific inventor in America today. I figure I turn loose roughly 400 inventions a year.”
As “The Art of Rube Goldberg” shows, he was also an all-around cartoon man, not to mention an authentic American eccentric and wiseacre. He could write and draw drama (“Doc Wright”) and humor (“Boob McNutt,” “Lala Palooza”), and he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for editorial cartooning (for a shockingly dull and bluff take on the threat of atomic war). During his 72-year career, he produced about 50,000 cartoons. No wonder the National Cartoonists Society’s annual award to the cartoonist of the year is called the Reuben, after Goldberg. By the way, he also designed the statuette, which is much funnier and funkier than any old Oscar or Emmy.
Trained as an engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, Goldberg used his scientific training for more than creating zany inventions. He worked one summer at the Oneida Gold Mine in Amador County, Calif., and after college, he helped map the tangle of San Francisco’s water pipes and sewer mains. And like any good cartoonist, he was also an excellent amateur sociologist and anthropologist.
This generously illustrated and well-designed appreciation captures all those facets of his career and more, and includes essays by the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, Jennifer George (who put the book together and is a grandchild of Goldberg’s), the Mad magazine cartoonist Al Jaffee and a range of comic strip historians.
All else aside, though, it’s his Rube Goldberg inventions that made him a lasting cultural presence. Goldberg once said his machines — which he drafted with strict but rollicking precision — were a “symbol of man’s capacity for exerting maximum effort to achieve minimal results.” It sometimes took him as long as 30 hours to execute one single-panel piece.
An exemplary example of one of his zany chain reactions is a cartoon on how to escape bill collectors:
“As tailor (A) fits customer (B) and calls out measurements, college boy (C) mistakes them for football signals and makes a flying tackle at clothing dummy (D). Dummy bumps head against paddle (E) causing it to pull hook (F) and throw bottle (G) on end of folding hatrack (H) which spreads and pushes head of cabbage (I) into net (J),” and on and improbably on until a bucket of whitewash is dumped all over the bill skip, causing him “to look like a marble statue and making it impossible to be recognized by bill collectors.”
Whew!!! That was even more grueling than cold fusion.
This cartoon also points up a gleeful slapstick cruelty in Goldberg’s inhuman engines — a reflection, perhaps, of his understanding that there are no chain reactions without violence, that the 20th century’s industrial and martial upheavals had the terrible potential to make mere cogs of us all, man and beast.
At heart, Goldberg, like Edison, was an ideas guy. “Almost everything I see or hear is useful in one way or another as containing an idea for a picture,” he once said. And through his labyrinthine thingamajigs, he invented a way to blunt America’s 20th-century lust for efficiency and hyper-rationalism, even if only on the funny pages, and maybe even make his readers crack a smile.