Wednesday, December 19, 2007


A classic example of an eponym, a word named after a real person, is the Rube Goldberg machine. A Rube Goldberg machine is an incredibly complex device intended to perform a simple task. The term or expression entered the English language around 1930 to describe Rube Goldberg's illustrations of "absurdly-connected machines" in his eagerly awaited cartoons.

Reuben Lucius "Rube" Goldberg (1883-1970), no relation to movie star Whoopi Goldberg, was a cartoonist and a Pulitzer Prize winner whose work was published in newspapers and magazines from coast to coast. Born and raised in San Francisco, Rube loved drawing as a small child, tracing illustrations from books and magazines. His father discouraged Rube's artistic interests and insisted that he go to college and learn something practical. Goldberg went to the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned an engineering degree. He worked as an engineer in the Water & Sewers Department in San Francisco, where he learned that if you're ambitious, you can't work for government. He was upset by the "lethargy of the city employees" and the requirement of loyalty to corrupt politicians. As Ed Norton of The Honeymooners might have said, "I resemble that remark."

Goldberg preferred drawing anyway, and a few months later got a job in the sports department of a San Francisco newspaper for $8 per week. He kept submitting drawings, especially athletes competing in sporting events, and eventually his works were published. His employers came to realize that his pictures were increasing sales of newspapers.

Goldberg moved to New York and became a regular cartoonist for the New York Evening Mail and the New York Sun, creating characters like Boob McNutt, Lala Palooza and Mike & Ike. His cartoons became nationally syndicated, and by 1922, he was making $100,000 per year. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for a political cartoon warning of the dangers of atomic weapons. Over his 60 year career, he was an often quoted radio and TV personality.

His wacky "inventions" poked fun at the "Machine Age" of the early Twentieth Century by using an extremely complex array of gears, wheels, arms, handles, cups and rods put in motion by balls, canaries, pails, boots, paddles and live animals to perform simple tasks like squeezing an orange for joice, dodging a bill collector or teeing up a golf ball without bending over.

His satire was evident in showing the disparity between the affluent who could afford the real appliances and the poor who would have to use the Rube Goldberg machine to achieve the same result. He spent hours on each drawing, paying great attention to detail. To quote Mr. Goldberg, the machines were a "symbol of man's capacity for exerting maximum effort to achieve minimal results." One could use the same terms to describe the efforts of the U.S. Congress. Certainly the U.S. Tax Code has often been described as Rube Goldberg legislation.

The engineering fraternities at Purdue University hold an annual Rube Goldberg Machine Contest which has grown to become the university's largest media event, surpassing even the sporting events. The winners of that contest have appeared on the Tonight Show and Late Night with David Letterman.

To quote from the contest rule book:

The Rube Goldberg machines you build are different from the machines people are used to seeing. A good Rube Goldberg machine incorporates the everyday machines people are used to seeing and connects them in ways that may seem idiotic or ingenious. It is your mission to construct a machine that uses at least 20 individual steps to complete an assigned task....

The materials you use are the most important components of the machine. See what you have around the house, raid your old toy chest, pick up all those appliances Dad has been meaning to fix, but most importantly, USE THEM. Anything goes when you are building a Rube Goldberg machine. Rube knew no bounds when he created his machines, and you should take the same attitude. Follow the adage, "Nothing is impossible, if you try." Your imagination is your only limit.

The finished machine is to be no more than 5 feet tall, 6 feet wide and 6 feet deep.... The machine has a 9 minute contest time. That means you must be able to run your machine completely through its paces once, reset it completely and run it completely through its paces again, all within 9 minutes. Only two people may touch the machine while it is being reset.

The contest is judged based on the ability of the machine to complete the specified tasks using as many steps as possible without a single failure.

Rube Goldberg machines have been featured in many cartoons such as Tom & Jerry, and also Road Runner where the inventive Wile E. Coyote is constantly devising such contraptions in a futile attempt to catch the Road Runner.

Movies featuring the devices include Back to the Future in which Doc Brown uses one to prepare his breakfast and feed his dog. In Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) uses one to prepare his breakfast. The 1999 movie Simply Irresistible has a device which prepares martinis. In the 1968 movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Dick Van Dyke's character has several Rube Goldberg machines in his house.

Goldberg even wrote a movie, Soup to Nuts (1930)which featured his machines and sculptures. That movies was the film debut of the Three Stooges.

If you're my age and want to program your VCR or DVD, you can take lessons from the Rube Goldberg instruction book.




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