He is best known for a series of popular cartoons depicting complex gadgets that perform simple tasks in indirect, convoluted ways. These devices, now known as Rube Goldberg machines, are similar to those drawn by W. Heath Robinson in the UK and Storm P in Denmark. Goldberg received many honors in his lifetime, including a Pulitzer Prize for his political cartooning in 1948 and the Banshees’ Silver Lady Award 1959.
Goldberg was a founding member and the first president of the National Cartoonists Society, and he is the namesake of the Reuben Award, which the organization awards to the Cartoonist of the Year. He is the inspiration for various international competitions, known as Rube Goldberg Machine Contests, which challenge participants to make a complex machine to perform a simple task.
Goldberg drew cartoons for five newspapers, including the New York Journal American|New York Evening Journal and the New York Evening Mail. His work entered syndication in 1915, beginning his nationwide popularity. He was syndicated by the McNaught Syndicate from 1922 until 1934.
A prolific artist, Goldberg produced several cartoon series simultaneously, including Mike and Ike (They Look Alike), Boob McNutt, Foolish Questions, Lala Palooza and The Weekly Meeting of the Tuesday Women’s Club. The cartoons that brought him lasting fame involved a character named Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts. In that series, Goldberg drew labeled schematics of the comical “inventions” that would later bear his name.
This postcard book, Rube Goldberg’s Inventions!, was compiled by Maynard Frank Wolfe from the Rube Goldberg Archives. The cover illustration shows Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin. The “Self-Operating Napkin” is activated when the soup spoon (A) is raised to mouth, pulling string (B) and thereby jerking ladle (C), which throws cracker (D) past parrot (E). Parrot jumps after cracker and perch (F) tilts, upsetting seeds (G) into pail (H). Extra weight in pail pulls cord (I), which opens and lights automatic lighter (J), setting off skyrocket (K), which causes sickle (L) to cut string (M) and allow the pendulum with the attached napkin to swing back and forth, thereby wiping chin.
In 1931 the Merriam-Webster dictionary adopted the word “Rube Goldberg” as an adjective defined as accomplishing something simple through complex means.
Predating Goldberg, the corresponding term in the UK was, and still is, “Heath Robinson“, after the English illustrator with an equal devotion to odd machinery (although Heath Robinson’s creations did not have the same emphasis on the sequential or chain reaction element).
Goldberg’s work was commemorated posthumously in 1995 with the inclusion of Rube Goldberg’s Inventions, depicting Professor Butts’ “Self-Operating Napkin” in the Comic Strip Classics series of U.S. postage stamps.
In the late 1960s and early 70s, educational shows like Sesame Street, Vision On and The Electric Company routinely showed bits that involved Rube Goldberg devices, including the Rube Goldberg Alphabet Contraption, and the What Happens Next Machine.
Various other films and cartoons have included highly complex machines that perform simple tasks. Among these are Flåklypa Grand Prix, Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, Wallace and Gromit, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, The Way Things Go, Edward Scissorhands, Back to the Future, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Goonies, Gremlins, the Saw film series, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Cat from Outer Space, Malcolm, Family Guy, American Dad!, and Waiting…
Also in the Final Destination film series the characters often die in Rube Goldberg-esque ways. In the film The Great Mouse Detective, the villain Ratigan attempts to kill the film’s heroes, Basil of Baker Street and David Q. Dawson, with a Rube Goldberg style device. The classic video in this genre was done by the artist duo Peter Fischli & David Weiss in 1987 with their 30 minute video “Der Lauf der Dinge” or “The Way Things Go”.
Honda produced a video in 2003 called “The Cog” using many of the same principles that Fischli and Weiss had done in 1987.
In 2005, the American indie/alternative rock band The Bravery released a video for their debut single, “An Honest Mistake,” which features the band performing the song in the middle of a Rube Goldberg machine.
In 1999, an episode of The X-Files was titled “The Goldberg Variation“. The episode intertwined characters FBI agents Mulder and Scully, a simple apartment super, Henry Weems (Willie Garson) and an ailing young boy, Ritchie Lupone (Shia LaBeouf) in a real-life Goldberg device.
The 2010 music video “This Too Shall Pass – RGM Version” by the rock band OK Go features a machine that, after four minutes of kinetic activity, shoots the band members in the face with paint. “RGM” presumably stands for Rube Goldberg Machine.