A Rube Goldberg machine is a machine of insanely complicated comedic value, it’s purposely over-complicated system performs the simplest of tasks in the most roundabout ways.
The Rube Goldberg machine was named after the cartoonist Rube Goldberg. Usually, these machines were made up of many simple mechanisms all serving a different purpose all trying to achieve one goal.
In the U.K a similar contraption is named after the illustrator Heath Robinson, the “Heath Robinson contraption”. When designs like this are put on paper they seem almost impossible to achieve, but recently more and more machines are being constructed for entertainment value.
As time has gone by the expression has developed to describe any complicated or confusing system.
In 1931 Professor Butts developed the ‘Self-Operating Napkin. The system works like this: The soup spoon is raised to the mouth, pulling the string, therefore, jerking the ladle, which then throws the cracker past the toucan.
The Toucan jumps after the cracker and perch which tilts, tipping the seeds into the pail.
Extra weight in the pail pulls the cord which opens and ignites the lighter, setting off the skyrocket, which causes the sickle to cut the string, allowing the pendulum with the attached napkin to swing back and forth, thereby whipping the chin.
Lots of Rube Goldberg’s machine ideas were used in films and TV shows for the comedic value of creating something so complicated and bizarre for such a simple task. These machines were used in shows such as The Goonies, Ernest Goes To Jail.
In the UK shows such as Wallace and Gromit used a similar idea by Heath Robinson. Other films such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Diving Into The Money Pit and Back To The Future, have all featured Rube Goldberg style devices.
In fairly recent US history, universities started hosting Rube Goldberg Machine competitions to see what students came up with the most bizarre and far fetched designs.
What Brought About The Invention Of The Rube Goldberg Machine
In the first solo exhibition of the cartoonists and inventor, Reuben Lucius, “Rube” Goldberg, who was already very famous for designing bizarre and complicated machines which were designed to fix everyday problems with and sense of humour and slight madness.
The History Behind Rube Goldberg’s Complex Machines
During his 72-year career, cartoonist Rube Goldberg made more than 50,000 drawings and thousands of comic strips.
In 1922, Goldberg was so desirable that a newspaper syndicate paid him $200,000 for his comic strips, about $2.3 million today, and in the ’40s and ‘50s, he was famous enough to endorse products like cough drops, socks and Lucky Strike cigarettes.
Today his name is an eponym for his famed drawings, designs of overly complicated machines. Goldberg opposed the consensus of technology making peoples lives easier, and instead demonstrated how it could have the opposite effect.
Goldberg, from San Fransico, who studied engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, is the only person whose name is used as an adjective in the dictionary.
As early as 1931, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary wrote “Rube Goldberg” as “accomplishing by complex means what seemingly could be done simply.”
Goldberg’s drawings, sketches, and cartoons, and photographs, films, letters, and memorabilia from his life, is on display in The Art of Rube Goldberg, open now at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.
Renny Pritikin, a curator at the museum, says Goldberg’s influence on American culture is hard to take away from him. “In the early 20s, before radio and TV, cartoonists were rock stars, plain and simple. “
The Sunday newspaper was one of the main sources of entertainment and culture and he had four or five strips that appeared in cities and towns all over the country.”
As a kid, Goldberg loved to draw in all of his free time, but he never took formal lessons, something he was proud of later in life. At 12, he won first prize at his school for a drawing named, The Old Violinist.
After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in mining engineering, Goldberg worked for a time for San Francisco City Engineer’s Office, Water and Sewers Department, but he hated the job so much and was so determined to draw for a living that he took a job as a sports cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle for less than a third of the salary he had at his previous job.
Goldberg dreamed of moving to New York, which he called, “the front row,” so he travelled across the country, getting a job at The New York Evening Mail, where he created comic strips and single-frame cartoons like “Boob McNutt,” “Lala Palooza,” “Mike and Ike—They Look-Alike” and “Foolish Questions,” all of which would become nationally famous, and later, globally.
A single-panel cartoon, “Foolish Questions” showcased Goldberg’s humour with his subjects answering sarcastically to obvious questions such as: “Are you cold?” “No, you musk ox, I’m shivering because I’m thinking how expensive prunes are in Egypt.”
In another comic, a woman asks a man standing on a frozen lake with blades on his feet, “Skating. Percy?” to which he answers, “No, I’m playing checkers on the bosom of grandpa’s old blue shirt.”
These were so popular that the public started sending in their foolish questions, said Pritikin, who calls this an early example of crowdsourcing.
“He could find humour in absurd situations and deliver them with a straightforward sophistication,” Pritikin said. “He was a rock star of his time, and he influenced how people joked around.”
The first complex contraption that would wind up being his most famous invention, was his “Automatic Weight Reducing Machine,” designed in 1914, which used a doughnut, bomb, balloon and a hot stove to trap an obese person in a room without food, who had to lose weight to get free.
In the late 20s, Goldberg started a series called “The Inventions of Professor Lucifer G. Butts” that was heavily influenced by his earlier job drawing sewer pipes for the San Francisco government.
The museum devotes an entire room to the drawings, highlighting Goldberg’s bemusement at how technological innovation can go wrong, such as “Discovery of a Sure Way to Keep the Head Down During a Golf Shot” and “An Idea to Keep You from Forgetting Your Wife’s Letter.”
Goldberg would later move into more newsworthy endeavours, drawing cartoons in the ’30s as a reaction to the rise of fascism in Europe.
Another, drawn in 1945, includes two parallel tracks in the desert, one labelled Arabs and one Jews, and a third, 1947 cartoon titled “Peace Today,” shows a nuclear bomb balanced on a precipice; it won him the Pulitzer Prize.
Now a semi-retired clinical psychologist living in New Jersey, John George, Goldberg’s grandson, spent weekends and summers with his grandfather and was well aware of his fame.
“This was in the ’50s and ’60s, not his heyday, but he was still very big, so you’d never wait in line for a restaurant, you’d go on TV shows, people would come up to him, ‘Oh, Mr Goldberg, this, that and the other,’” George recalls. “So you were out in the world with a big celebrity, and then you’d come home to a regular person. He was able to be both and I think enjoyed both.”
Goldberg’s career was remarkable both for its length and variety, Pritikin says. He was prescient, at least in the example of a Forbes magazine cover illustrated by Goldberg. Called “The Future of Home Entertainment,” it shows a family in their living room, with everyone, including the cat, watching their flat-screen TV and ignoring one another.
The 6 Mechanisms
Classically a Rube Goldberg Machine consists of six simple mechanisms:
- The Wedge
- The Screw
- The Lever
- Wheel & Axel
- Inclined Plane
- The Pulley
How To Build Your Own Rube Goldberg Machine
Select Your Task
The first thing you must do when deciding to build a Rube Goldberg machine is to identify your objective. Classically the tasks are simple, mundane everyday tasks.
An easy way to find some of these tasks is to take a walk around the kitchen, or the house. A few examples are:
- Pop a balloon
- Fill a glass of water
- Shut a door
- Turn off an alarm clock
- Put the kettle on
- Put the toaster on
Follow The Rules
If you are building your machine for an official competition you will be given a packet with a set of rules you must follow. Before starting make sure you read it all carefully.
To find your ideal machine, go through some of your favourite designs throughout history. Try to find inspiration in these ideas and use these whilst giving yours a unique twist to accomplish your goal action.
Do not copy someone’s design, instead, try to see past it and improve yours by taking it a step further and more bizarre!
Good places to look for inspiration are Rube Goldberg’s original cartoons, competition submissions and Youtube videos.
Classically Rube Goldberg’s machines took everyday household items and turned them into useful and functional pieces of equipment that work it unisom to carry out a simple task.
Take some time wandering about the house, stores and markets. Try to find the most versatile items as this will have a huge effect on how well your machine works.
Examples Of Items Are
- Wooden boards
- Toilet roll
- Playing cards
- Toy cars
- Desk lamps
- Duct tape
- Paper clips
- Safety pins
- Zip ties
- Tennis balls
Try to get creative, anything that serves a useful purpose in weight, motion, stability etc
Test The Materials
Once you have gathered all of your materials, lay them all out and start to play around and see if any creative ideas pop out right away.
Often by doing this many ideas form. It’s a good idea to write down any ideas that work so you don’t forget.
Start to try and form a few small chain reactions to help give you an idea of how you will achieve your end goal.
If you are in a group, swap materials with each other to keep the fresh ideas coming. Then you can talk and agree on what you decide is the most effective.
Ask yourself the obvious questions when playing with the materials. Seeing as you already have your end goal in mind, you’ll know what you’ll need to achieve this.
The six main functions of a Rabe Goldberg machine I mentioned above. Try to keep these basic functions in mind as you are developing ideas.
Creating Your Building Plan
The most basic principle of the Rube Goldberg Machine is completing a simple task with an overly complex chain reaction machine. With this fundamental idea, start to develop your building plan.
A good tip, when designing your plan, is to start with the final step and work backwards. You can create your plan by listing the steps in reverse.
For this article let’s say the task is to Put The Kettle On
- A tennis ball will fall from a wooden board to drop onto the kettle switch to turn it on
- The wooden board will tilt by the attached string
- The string is pulled by the moving toy car
- The toy car drives down a wooden ramp to pull the string
And so on…
Make Your Prototype
Once you have all your materials gathered, sit down at your workstation with your noted down ideas and building plan.
Put together a prototype of your machine and how it functions to reach the end goal. Don’t worry too much about making it durable and perfect. You’ll have the chance to build your masterpiece later!
At this stage just make sure you have the fundamentals down to give you the confidence when it comes to making the real thing.
If you find some issues then head back to your notes and try to work backwards through the problem. It’s very normal to run into issues at this point in the process.
This is why doing a prototype is an essential stage of the building.
Once you have it all together then it’s time to put it to the test! With a bit of luck, the machine completes the task and you can move on.
If not then head back to the drawing board and find some solutions to the problem.
As yourself some simple questions:
- Is the problem fixable?
- Do you need to scrap an entire idea?
- Are the materials right for the job?
- Is your task achievable?
Once you have successfully pinpointed the problem, resolve it and try the prototype until you are achieving your goal.
Build The Final Product And Test It
Once you have solidified the fundamental workings of your machine with the prototype, it’s time to build the real thing.
Use robust materials and take care when building the essential parts in the machine. These parts will need to be able to withstand repeatability and produce consistency.
Once you have made your Rube Goldberg Machine you must test it at least five times in a row. It’s also important that the machine functions on its own without any human alterations of support or an extra ‘push’.
If the machine completes the test fives times or more within one hour then the machine has passed the repeatability test. If there are small adjustments that need to be made to make it even more precise then go ahead and do this.
If your machine is successful sometimes and fails the other times then ask yourself these questions?
- Which steps are working effectively?
- Which steps are inhibiting the machine from functioning?
Is the task achievable?
Time To Test The Machines Reliability
Once you have reached this point, and it passed the previous step of repeatability, it’s time to test its reliability.
In this step, you should test the machine five times in a row without making any alterations in between turns.
If the machine passes 4 of the 5 attempts then you can safely deem your machine to have passed the reliability test and you have made a working Rube Goldberg Machine.
Well done! If not, return to the previously asked questions and make the necessary changes.
If you are presenting the machine for a competition, before you submit it, practice building it and taking it apart with consistency, and test its reliability after each build to eliminate any surprises when the time comes to compete.
Famous Current Day Rube Goldberg Machines
Honda – The Cog
The Honda advert which sees the entirety of the car in pieces on the floor is carefully laid out to form one of the most impressive Rube Goldberg Machines. See the phenomenal system here.
OK Go Music Video
Rube Goldberg Machines are famous because of how over the top they are, and they don’t get much more extravagant than this music video by OK Go, this video features a moving car and a falling piano.
This video helped the band make a name for themselves due to its pure genius.
Rube Goldberg Photobooth
When we were kids we secretly thought there was a guy with a camera inside of the photo booth… or a crazy machine like the one in this video below. It starts with a FujiFilm instant camera and ends with a traditional DSLR.
It’s also a nice touch that they don’t keep the professional picture, they keep the instant photo, giving it a bit more of a personal touch.
Featured in the documentary “Mousetrap to Mars”, this Rube Goldberg machine is made up of lots of old toys like an Operation board game, a train set, and tons of other stuff you most likely played with as a child.
The design is insanely compact and it’s clear this thing took a long time to put together. In fact, of all the entries on this list, this one seems most difficult to build. They’re working in tight quarters, so any wrong movement could have set the machine off, ruining all the hard work.
Rube Goldberg Machines take the most insanely ridiculous route to achieve something very simple, so if you think about it, the creation of the universe is like one big Rube Goldberg Machine.
This is the idea behind the Purdue University Rube Goldberg Machine called “The Time Machine” which shows the history of the world from the big bang to the total breakdown of existence.
This was created in 2011, it destroyed the world record for most steps completed by a machine.
The Christmas Tree Lighter
People love building larger and larger pointless and insanely bizarre machines. The Guinness Book of world records seems to get a lot of entries from these elaborate machines. This intricate adventure of a machine ends up in a beautifully festive place.
Melvin The Machine
Although it’s generally understood that Rube Goldberg Machines are essentially useless, they normally end up accomplishing something minor in the end.
Whether it’s putting the kettle on, popping a balloon, covering someone in paint, filling a glass of water or turning the pages of a newspaper. Melvin the machine exists only to promote itself.
Famous Rube Goldberg Machines In Famous Movies
One of the most famous Goldberg machines in film has to be the defence system built into the cave seen in the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Starting when Indiana Jones removes the golden idol from its pedestal, the machine becomes activated. Even though we don’t see how it works, it sets off a series of routines designed to trap and kill the thief. The boulder is the last resort.
The idea that even an ancient society without sophisticated technology can build a working machine plays right into Goldberg’s concept, a complicated machine is composed of simplistic components that work together in succession, often in bizarre ways.
All of the Indiana Jones films feature a Rube Goldberg-like device similar to this one.
Another example of a Rube Goldberg machine is from Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. When a can opener causes Edward to have a flashback, we see a weirdly complicated machine that is used to make cookies.
This is a prime example of a Rube Goldberg machine not necessarily because it is doing something simple in a complicated manner, but because it is a machine that is performing a task in an unusual, somewhat creative way.
There are far more efficient ways to produce cookies in mass, yet this machine isn’t concerned with any of that. It’s all about the looks and the artistry of the beautiful moving parts.
Classic Rube Goldberg Machines
More traditional Rube Goldberg machines have been featured in many popular films.
Since Goldberg designed his contraptions to be whimsical contributions to modern life, they often were seen completing simple tasks in bizarre ways inside the home.
An example includes one of his most famous designs, a mechanism that used a soup spoon to trigger a napkin. Filmmakers took this and expanded upon it.
As such, many of the Rube Goldberg machines that are seen in film are ones that are used to complete chores around the house.
The most common type of Rube Goldberg machine in film has to be the breakfast-making machine. We’ve seen this many times before.
The most famous Rube Goldberg breakfast-making machine is from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. This is a great Rube Goldberg machine for many reasons.
First, like the rest of the film, this machine is fun. It uses several different toys, and cartoon-like elements to prepare breakfast for Pee Wee Herman. It also is full of vibrant colours. The plastic toys are bright which makes them stand out.
Another reason this is such a great contraption is the fact that Pee Wee himself is fascinated by it. He makes the workings of the machine seem joyful which helps immerse the audience.
This is also a great example of putting together various ideas to create a machine that works together in harmony. Strings, tubes, motors, belts, everything is in harmony… It starts with a simple mechanism that starts a record player which switches on the sound.
Another famous breakfast-making machine from the 1980’s comes from a popular 80’s film classic, Back to the Future.
The opening sequence shows Doc Brown’s home and inside there are several devices that are working together to prepare breakfast.
However, this one is unique because it’s not working very well. This helps captivate the audience because it becomes apparent that not everything is ok.
Immediately we’re transfixed by the character of Doc Brown because of his inventions and their broken-down, subnormal state, even before we meet him.
In Back to the Future III, there is a homage to Doc Brown’s original breakfast machine but uses 19th-century technology to do the job.
One of the oldest breakfast machine contraptions in cinema is from the 1963 movie, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. This is one of the original examples of a scientist character having a Rube Goldberg type machine in their home.
Other examples excluding Back to the Future include Flubber. A Robin Williams classic. There is a slightly aloof, almost comedic perspective, helped by the way Robin Williams plays the part of ‘mad scientist.
Like the device in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, the characters are captivated by it. This helps to promote the up-beat and happy tone of the film.
Although this one is simpler than other Rube Goldberg machines we’ve seen, it is no less creative. The aesthetics and design of the machine work well with the setting and give it an original rustic feel.
Not Just Machines
When we talk about Rube Goldberg designs in film, they don’t always have to be actual machines.
On many occasions, creative filmmakers have used normal objects, sets, and even people to set up complicated sequences that unfold similarly to the way that a Rube Goldberg machine would.
These unusual “chain reaction” sequences aren’t designed to finish a task in the same way that Goldberg’s contraptions are. Instead, they take pleasure in viewing normal things made abnormal in ways for pure entertainment.
A perfect reference point is the opening sequence of the otherwise distinctly average Superman III.
Immediately, the audience is dialled in on the comedic approach of this second sequel. The music suggests a comedy vibe, and a combination of slapstick and circumstance confirms this.
One small distraction, caused by a woman in an eye-catching dress, leads to a series of events that cause destruction and mayhem on an otherwise normal city block. This is a more unusual ‘Rube’ like artistic portrayal.
Another Goldberg non-machine example is in the Tom Hanks film The Money Pit. Again, you instantly pick up on a light-hearted comedy vibe.
The domino reaction of events continues because of one mistake after another. In this way, the sequence evokes Goldberg’s contraptions because it is creating motion in unlikely, or complicated ways.
The exaggerations from the comedic tone are what makes this sequence understandable. Moreover, it makes perfect use of the set. As the scaffolding comes apart, it works similar to a Goldberg machine in many cases.