Foolish Questions

The Art of Rube Goldberg

an exhibition at the Museum of Pop Culture, Seattle, February 11–April 23, 2017; the Grand Rapids Art Museum, May 21–August 27, 2017; Citadelle Art Foundation and Museum, Canadian, Texas, September 15–November 26, 2017; the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, March 15–July 8, 2018; the Portland Public Library, Portland, Maine, August 3–September 22, 2018; the National Museum of American Jewish History, Philadelphia, October 12, 2018–January 21, 2019; the Evansville Museum of Arts, History and Science, April 28–July 21, 2019; and the Queens Museum, October 6, 2019–February 9, 2020
Panels from Count Screwloose of Tooloose by Milt Gross, April 5, 1931
King Features Syndicate/The Library of American Comics
Panels from Count Screwloose of Tooloose by Milt Gross, April 5, 1931

Two ladies on an outing to the Queens Museum one weekend last fall wander into “The Art of Rube Goldberg” exhibition. They enter casually and chuckle at a monitor playing a few moments from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. A factory worker is immobilized in a complicated lunch-feeding contraption inspired by Rube Goldberg, a pal of Chaplin’s. It shovels some soup into his mouth, then short-circuits as it rams a whirring cob of corn up against his teeth, force-feeds him a couple of loose bolts, shoves a slice of cream pie into his dazed mug and then smears it with an automated napkin. Next, there’s a clip from a 1930 comedy, Soup to Nuts, written by Goldberg. (It includes a memorable antiburglar contraption but today is better known for featuring Larry, Moe, and Shemp before they became the Three Stooges.) The women glance at some of the original art on the walls as they drift out and one says, “Gosh, I never knew he was a cartoonist, too!”

Being a cartoonist too was the price of immortality for a cartoonist so famous that he became an adjective in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as early as 1931: “accomplishing by complex means what seemingly could be done simply.” The adjective still has currency, as in a recent Foreign Policy opinion piece that describes the electoral college as “that cockamamie Rube Goldberg mechanism that never quite worked as intended.” (It shows up often in discussions of government policy and single-payer-health-care math.)

Rube Goldberg was the Christopher Columbus of the screwball contraption, finding a way to get from point A to point B by traveling through all the other letters of the alphabet. And, like Columbus, a number of other intrepid explorers had gotten there first. At least two years before Goldberg, the renowned British illustrator and cartoonist Heath Robinson began publishing deadpan-droll tableaux that featured useless inventions, as did Denmark’s hidden treasure, cartoonist and humorist Storm Petersen. Both “Heath Robinson” and “Storm P.” were adjectivized in their own nation’s lexicons. None of this has anything to do with plagiarism; it’s a marker of the disorienting Machine Age these artists were born into, and of cartooning’s singular role as a Zeitgeist barometer.

Goldberg was born on July 4, 1883, to a Prussian-Jewish immigrant father who became a fixture in San Francisco Republican politics. Fearful that his son would become an artist, Max Goldberg insisted that Rube study to be an engineer at UC Berkeley. He graduated in 1904 to a job mapping out sewer mains for the city of San Francisco but bailed just four weeks later to become a sports cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Goldberg’s engineering background allowed his ingratiatingly lumpy…

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