A Rube Goldberg machine is a contraption, invention, device or apparatus that is deliberately over-engineered or overdone to perform a very simple task in a very complicated fashion, usually including a chain reaction. The expression is named after American cartoonist and inventor Rube Goldberg (1883–1970).
Over the years, the expression has expanded to mean any confusing or complicated system. For example, news headlines include “Is Rep. Bill Thomas the Rube Goldberg of Legislative Reform?” and “Retirement ‘insurance’ as a Rube Goldberg machine”.
Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin
Rube Goldberg’s cartoons became well known for depicting complicated devices that performed simple tasks in indirect, convoluted ways. The example on the right is Goldberg’s “Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin”, which was later reprinted in a few book collections, including the postcard book Rube Goldberg’s Inventions! and the hardcover Rube Goldberg: Inventions, both compiled by Maynard Frank Wolfe from the Rube Goldberg Archives. The “Self-Operating Napkin” is activated when 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 cigar lighter (J), setting off skyrocket (K) which causes sickle (L) to cut string (M) and allow pendulum with 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 complicated means.
Similar expressions worldwide
• Australia — cartoonist Bruce Petty depicts such themes as the economy, international relations or other social issues as complicated interlocking machines that manipulate, or are manipulated by, people.
• Austria — Franz Gsellmann worked for decades on a machine that he named the Weltmaschine (“world machine”), having many similarities to a Rube Goldberg machine.
• Czech Republic — such machines are sometimes called “Raketoplán” (“Space Shuttle”) mainly in the IT industry describing simple tasks being solved with unnecessary complicated and expensive solutions.
• Denmark — called Storm P maskiner (“Storm P machines”), after the Danish inventor and cartoonist Robert Storm Petersen (1882 – 1949).
• France — a similar machine is called usine à gaz, or gas refinery, suggesting a very complicated factory with pipes running everywhere and a risk of explosion. It is now used mainly among programmers to indicate a complicated program, or in journalism to refer to a bewildering law or regulation.
• Germany — such machines are often called “Was-passiert-dann-Maschine” (“What happens next machine”) for the German name of similar devices used by Kermit the Frog in the children’s TV show Sesame Street.
• Great Britain — a Heath Robinson contraption, named after the fantastical comic machinery illustrated by British cartoonist W. Heath Robinson, shares a similar meaning but predates the Rube Goldberg machine, originating in the UK in 1912.
• India — the humorist and children’s author Sukumar Ray, in his nonsense poem “Abol tabol”, had a character (Uncle) with a Rube Goldberg-like machine called “Uncle’s contraption”(khuror kol). This word is used colloquially in Bengali to mean a complicated and useless object.
• Japan — “Pythagorean devices” or “Pythagoras switch”. PythagoraSwitch (ピタゴラスイッチ, “Pitagora Suicchi”) is the name of a TV show featuring such devices. Another related phenomenon is the Japanese art of chindōgu, which involves inventions that are hypothetically useful but of limited actual utility.
• Norway — cartoonist and storyteller Kjell Aukrust created a cartoon character named Reodor Felgen, who constantly invented complicated machinery. Though it was often built out of unlikely parts, it always performed very well. Felgen stars as the inventor of an extremely powerful but overly complicated car, Il Tempo Gigante, in the Ivo Caprinoanimated puppet film Flåklypa Grand Prix (1975).
• Spain — devices akin to Goldberg’s machines are known as Inventos del TBO (tebeo), named after those that several cartoonists ( Nit, Tínez, Marino Benejam, Frances Tur and finally Ramón Sabatés) made up and drew for a section in the TBO magazine, allegedly designed by some “Professor Franz” from Copenhagen.
• Turkey — such devices are known as Zihni Sinir Proceleri, allegedly invented by a certain Prof. Zihni Sinir (“Crabby Mind”), a curious scientist character created by İrfan Sayar in 1977 for the cartoon magazine Gırgır. The cartoonist later went on to open a studio selling actual working implementations of his designs.
• Peter Fischli & David Weiss, Swiss artists known for their art installation movie Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go, 1987). It documents a 30 minutes long causal chain assembled of everyday objects, resembling a Rube Goldberg machine.
• Tim Hawkinson (not to be confused with Tim Hawkins) has made several art pieces that contain complicated apparatuses that are generally used to make abstract art or music. Many of them are centered around the randomness of other devices (such as a slot machine) and are dependent on them to create some menial effect.
Rube Goldberg machine designers participating in a competition in New Mexico.
In early 1987, Purdue University in Indiana started the annual National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, organized by the Phi Chapter of Theta Tau, a national engineering fraternity. In 2009, the Epsilon Chapter of Theta Tauestablished a similar annual contest at the University of California, Berkeley.
Since around 1997, the kinetic artist Arthur Ganson has been the emcee of the annual “Friday After Thanksgiving” (FAT) competition sponsored by the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Teams of contestants construct elaborate Rube Goldberg style chain-reaction machines on tables arranged around a large gymnasium. Each apparatus is linked by a string to its predecessor and successor machine. The initial string is ceremonially pulled, and the ensuing events are videotaped in closeup, and simultaneously projected on large screens for viewing by the live audience. After the entire cascade of events has finished, prizes are then awarded in various categories and age levels. Videos from several previous years’ contests are viewable on the MIT Museum website.
On Food Network’s TV show “Challenge”, competitors in 2011 were once required to create a Rube Goldberg machine out of sugar.
An event called Mission Possible in Science Olympiad involves students building a Rube Goldberg-like device to perform a certain series of tasks.
In April 2012, the Bosch company hosted an event called the “Playground of Engineers” in Hungary where the participant teams had to perform a series of tasks wherein they collected coins. Later that day, the main challenge was to build an overly complicated Goldberg Machine, the goal of which was to switch on a car dashboard. The teams were able to buy additional items with their collected coins above the standard issue equipment to make their machine more complicated. The main criteria of the judges were complexity, operating time and the number of components used.
Examples in media
Where possible, works are arranged in a loose chronological order, so priority of invention and influences can be inferred.
• Our Gang (a.k.a. Little Rascals), “Hook and Ladder” (1932) – and various other Little Rascals Film Shorts contained various seemingly-functional examples of Rube Goldberg Machines.
• Tweetie Pie (1947) – Sylvester builds a complex contraption similar to the one as seen in Trap Happy Porky to catchTweety, but fails as the bowling ball that was supposed to fall on Tweety falls on Sylvester instead.
• Betty Boop and Grampy (1945) – a cartoon featuring animated character Betty Boop. Betty Boop goes to a party where Grampy uses a variety of impractical machines, notably to play music. The cartoon itself is available on YouTube.
• Trap Happy Porky (1935) – a cartoon in which a cat fashions a complicated mouse trap to catch troublesome mice.
• Lovelorn Leghorn (1951) – Miss Prissy builds a rooster trap assisted by the Barnyard Dawg to trap Foghorn Leghorn.
• Designs on Jerry (1953) – an episode of Tom and Jerry which featured a blueprint plan for an elaborate mousetrap, which magically comes to life.
• Hook, Line and Stinker (1958) – Looney Tunes cartoon character Wile E. Coyote builds a Rube Goldberg machine in attempt to catch Road Runner
• Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) – includes a sequence near the beginning of the film where breakfast is “made” by eccentric inventor Caractacus Potts.
• In the late 1960s and early ’70s, educational shows like Sesame Street and The Electric Company routinely showed bits that involved Rube Goldberg devices, including the Rube Goldberg Alphabet Contraption, and the What Happens Next Machine.
• Back to the Future (1985) – shows Doc Brown’s (Christopher Lloyd) Rube Goldberg machine cooking his breakfast and feeding his dog when the clock turns to a certain time in the morning. Doc Brown also creates a similar machine using 1885 technology in Back to the Future Part III (1990).
• The Goonies (1985) – has an early scene where “Chunk” (actor Jeff Cohen) has to perform the “truffle shuffle” to be allowed entry in the Goonies’ house. The door is opened through a Rube Goldberg device.
• Brazil (1985) – directed by Terry Gilliam and set in a dystopian totalitarian bureaucratic society, features many Rube Goldberg machines with specific household uses.
• Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) utilized a Rube Goldberg Machine for the “Breakfast Machine” sequence. This scene is also parodied in the season 4 Family Guy episode “8 Simple Rules for Buying My Teenage Daughter”.
• The Way Things Go (1987) – a short film by artists and sculptural collagists Peter Fischli & David Weiss; features an elaborate chain reaction made from old junk in an empty industrial space.
• Honey, I Shrunk The Kids (1989) – The story of how a nerdy, flop inventor’s ultimate machine backfires on him and his family after his usage of Rube Goldberg machines have earned him ridicule from the scientific community.
• Apoorva Sagodharargal (1989) – in this Tamil language film, Appu (Kamal Haasan) kills Francis Anbarasu (Delhi Ganesh) using a Rube Goldberg machine.
• Wallace and Gromit (1989?–2010) – a series of films featuring many contraptions that qualify as Rube Goldberg machines.
• The Thief and the Cobbler (1993)/(1995) – in the climax, the protagonist Tack causes the machine of the evil One-Eye to collapse by firing a tack at the machine which causes a Rube Goldberg-like destruction.
• Of Course, You Know This Means Warners / Up A Tree/ Wakko’s Gizmo (1994) – in episode 57 of Animaniacs, Wakkobuilds a Rube Goldberg device which results in a whoopee cushion being set off.
• The Rock (1996) – FBI’s top chemical weapons specialist, Dr. Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) wins $5 with a Rube Goldberg contraption.
• Dexter’s Laboratory – In the 2001 episode, “A Failed Experiment”, Dexter is too impatient to hang around and watch his grandfather’s Rube Goldberg contraption, missing exactly the kind of finish he’d been longing for.
• PythagoraSwitch (2002?) – a Japanese children’s show which features contraptions several times in an episode and features both machines constructed by the show’s staff and videos of machines created by viewers.
• Cog (2003) – a Honda television commercial featuring a complicated Rube Goldberg machine made with Honda parts.
• Dead Like Me (2003–2004) – in this Showtime series, many deaths occur through Rube Goldberg scenarios.
• “An Honest Mistake” (2005) – music video by the alternative rock band The Bravery.
• Waiting… (2005) showed a Rube Goldberg machine in the end credits.
• El Hormiguero (2006–present) – in this Spanish TV show, at least once a week in the segment El Efecto Mariposa (The Butterfly Effect), a Rube Goldberg machine is developed whose final part tends to show something related to that day’s guest.
• “The New Cup” (2009) – this episode of Flight of the Conchords includes a Rube-Goldberg accident that destroys a mug.
• “This Too Shall Pass” (2010) – the promotional music video for OK Go’s single features a giant Rube Goldberg machine working in sync with the song. Members of the band are bodily moved about and splattered with colored paint near the end of the video.
• Milan Furniture Fair (April 2012) Salone Internazionale del Mobile, Milan, Italy. Melvin the Machine – Melvin is smart: he geo-locates himself using GPS, documents his audience with his built-in smartphone camera, and talks about his “runs” on Facebook and Twitter. After each successful run, he spits out a stamped postcard that reads “wish you were here”.
• Ruffles Max Machine (May 2012) – a Ruffles internet commercial featuring a Rube Goldberg machine made by Wanda Digital Agency, produced by Kaporta Film. This project was made as a school project with 26 student of Plato College of Higher Education, Istanbul.
• Elementary (September 2012 – Present) – Two alternate title sequences of this CBS TV series feature Rube Goldberg Machines consisting of glass marbles setting a chain reaction into motion, one leading to the dropping of a cage on top of a figurine and the other of a gun going off and destroying a statue.
• The Athlete Machine – Red Bull Kluge (November 2012) – A Rube Goldberg machine created with a mix of typical Rube Goldberg style creations and human athletes performing mostly Extreme sports.
Undated and incomplete references:
• Tom and Jerry – Tom constantly tries to catch or kill Jerry through Goldberg Machines. notable parts of such devices include a pool shot, candles, anvils, and a coocoo clock with a knife attached.
• In the episode iDon’t Wanna Fight of the Nickelodeon TV show iCarly, Carly’s older brother Spencer builds a Rube Goldberg device to feed his goldfish.
• In the episode “Pain in the Ed” of the Cartoon Network show Ed, Edd n Eddy, Edd and Eddy constructed a giant Rube Goldberg machine disguised as the Statue of Liberty in order to destroy Ed’s violin, but it failed because Edd purposely sabotaged it by luring Ed away from the target.
• On July 4, 2010, Google changed its logo into a Rube Goldberg machine in honor of Rube Goldberg’s birthday.
• In the cartoon Scooby-Doo, Where Are You, Mystery Inc. often used a Rube Goldberg trap designed by Fred to capture the villain of the episode, for such things as throwing a net. Often, however, the said trap would fail, with the outcome usually being that Shaggy or Scooby-Doo would be captured instead, or the trap would miss.
• In the Suite Life on Deck episode “A London Carol”, Zack constructs a Rube Goldberg machine to trick Mr. Moseby instead of waking up and getting to work on time.
• In the Cartoon Network TV series Adventure Time, Finn makes a Rube Goldberg-like machine to help everyone who needs to solve their problems. In the episode Too Young, Finn and Princess Bubblegum make a Rube Goldberg machine to perform a prank on the Earl of Lemongrab.
• The 2010 Times Square SUV bomb was referred to as a “Rube Goldberg contraption” by James Cavanaugh, a former ATF agent working with New York City to investigate the attempted terrorist act.
• Rube Goldberg machines are featured repeatedly in the movies of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. They are a major topic of the black comedy film Delicatessen, most notably because of the contraptions with which Aurore Interligator unsuccessfully tries to kill herself. Much of The City of Lost Children is set in a Rube Goldberg-like laboratory, and it’s a prominent theme of Micmacs.
• In a Halloween episode of Wishbone, one of the main characters puts a coin in a certain slot, setting off a Goldberg machine, revealing a clue. Wishbone comments “Well, that was kind of cool!”
• In the 23rd episode of the 6th season of Futurama, The tip top of Zoidberg where Bender, Leela, Fry and the others make a Goldberg killing machine to prevent the professor turning into a yeti
• At the end of the episode “Revenge of the Ghostmaster” from The Real Ghostbusters, Ray, Egon and Slimer use a relatively simple Rube Goldberg Machine to trap the Ghostmaster from over forty feet away.
• Tigger constructs a flawed device to stop crows from stealing crops from Rabbit’s garden in the episode “Owl’s Well That Ends Well” of The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Once he repairs the final part of the machine, it drops a bag of swill on Rabbit instead.
• MythBusters made a Rube Goldberg Machine in their 2006 Christmas Special that concludes in dumping the crash test dummy Buster on the floor.
• In each Final Destination film, a group of people die in a series of elaborate, invariably fatal and often gory scenarios that frequently resemble Rube Goldberg machines in their complexity.
• TV show X-Files, has an episode named “The Goldberg Variation”, where one character escapes death through events that work like a Rube Goldberg machine. The same character also develops a device like a Rube Goldberg machine as a hobby.
• Unchained Reaction is an American TV series with competing teams trying to build a Rube Goldberg device to be judged by industry professionals from many varied fields. Hosted by Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman of Mythbusters.
• In the video game Lollipop Chainsaw there is a Rube Goldberg machine that is started by the father in the game and is used to break the floor below so as to get to one of the final bosses.
• In the video game Ghost Trick a Rube Goldberg machine makes its appearance. The player must interact with the machine in accordance to the game’s mechanics to subtly change the end result of the machine from a trap that would spell certain death for one of the protagonists.
• Zoom (1999) – The Zoomers test out their invention that includes getting toothpaste squeezed on the toothbrush andmilk poured in a cup.
• Mouse Trap (1963), classic board game in which a Rube Goldberg style mousetrap is built and operated
• The Incredible Machine (aka TIM), a video game
• Armadillo Run, a videogame where the goal is to move a ball to a certain point
• Crazy Machines (2005)
• Marble Drop (1997)
• Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (1991), Guybrush and Wally are hung above acid whilst attached to a Rube Goldberg machine that the player-character has to escape from
• Rube Works: The Official Rube Goldberg Invention Game (2013), based on Rube Goldberg’s original cartoons, published by Unity Games, designed and executive produced by ex-LucasArts member David Fox, co-executive produced by Rube’s granddaughter Jennifer George, engineering by Kalani Games.
• RuneScape (2001), the ‘Rune Goldberg’ machine allows users to convert runestones into a substance called “vis wax”.
The largest functional Rube Goldberg machine consisted of 300 different steps and was made by the Purdue Society of Professional Engineers (PSPE) Rube Goldberg Team (all USA). It was activated at the National Rube Goldberg Machine Competition at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, USA, on 31 March 2012.
The machine was presented at the National Rube Goldberg Machine Competition. As per the rules of the competition the machine ran in under 2 minutes (1 min 56 sec). Its objective was to blow up and pop a balloon.
Reuben “Rube” Lucius Goldberg (1883–1970) was an American cartoonist, sculptor, author, engineer and inventor. He was known for a series of cartoons depicting complex gadgets performing simple tasks in indirect, convoluted ways.Share