Rube Goldberg – The man who became an adjective

Rube Goldberg, New York Sun (1883 -1970) His name became part of our vocabulary, not just as a well-known person, but as a descriptive term. Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines Rube Goldberg as: “1. Having a fantastically complicated improvised appearance: a Rube Goldberg arrangement of flasks and test tubes. 2. Deviously complex and impractical: a Rube Goldberg scheme for reducing taxes. Also, Goldbergian.”

Reuben Lucius Goldberg was born in San Francisco on the Fourth of July, 1883. His father, a practical man, insisted he go to college to become an engineer. After graduating from the University of California Berkeley, Goldberg went to work with the City of San Francisco Water and Sewers Department.  His childhood love of art and cartooning prevailed however, and after six months he left to become an office boy in the sports department of a San Francisco newspaper. Once there, he kept submitting drawings and cartoons to his editor until finally he was published.

Success soon followed and Goldberg moved to New York where he drew daily cartoons for several newspapers. His work entered syndication in 1915, beginning his nationwide popularity. A prolific artist, Goldberg produced several cartoon series simultaneously; titles included Mike and Ike, Boob McNutt, Foolish Questions, Lala Palooza, and The Weekly Meeting of the Tuesday Women’s Club.

While all these were quite popular, the one which led to his lasting fame involved a character named Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts. In this series, Goldberg would draw labeled schematics of comical “inventions” which would later bear his name and make Rube Goldberg synonymous with over-engineered, unnecessarily complicated devices and schemes.

A lesser known fact about Goldberg is that he served as a political cartoonist with the original New York Sun from 1938 until the paper went out of business in 1950.  He was successful in this endeavor as well and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his political cartooning in 1948.

Goldberg retired from cartooning in 1964, only to become a prominent bronze sculptor.  He died in 1970 but his art lives on in many forms, such as the annual Rube Goldberg Machine Contest sponsored by a Purdue University engineering fraternity — the goal of which is to “challenge students to take a few steps back from reality and have fun making the most complicated, roundabout device to complete a simple task.”

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