Lovebirds + String + Watering Can + Dog = Rube Goldberg Magic

  • Rube Goldberg drew many of his devices for his series, "The Inventions of Professor Lucifer G. Butts, A.K," published in Colliers magazine between 1929 and 1931.
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    Rube Goldberg drew many of his devices for his series, "The Inventions of Professor Lucifer G. Butts, A.K," published in Colliers magazine between 1929 and 1931.
    Copyright Heirs of Rube Goldberg/Abrams ComicArts
  • Goldberg co-founded the National Cartoonists Society, and served as its first president. Its annual prize, the Reuben, was named in his honer, but it irked him that it took him 13 years to win one.
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    Goldberg co-founded the National Cartoonists Society, and served as its first president. Its annual prize, the Reuben, was named in his honer, but it irked him that it took him 13 years to win one.
    Copyright Heirs of Rube Goldberg/Abrams ComicArts
  • Goldberg wrote a number of songs, some of which were published as sheet music. The original art for the "Whiskers" sheet music is part of the permanent collection of the Society of Illustrators in New York City.
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    Goldberg wrote a number of songs, some of which were published as sheet music. The original art for the "Whiskers" sheet music is part of the permanent collection of the Society of Illustrators in New York City.
    Copyright Heirs of Rube Goldberg/Abrams ComicArts
  • Goldberg won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning with this cartoon, published in The New York Sun.
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    Goldberg won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning with this cartoon, published in The New York Sun.
    Copyright Heirs of Rube Goldberg/Abrams ComicArts
  • Goldberg's elephant, top, and granddaughter Jennifer George's drawing below, from 1967. George says her grandfather swam with his shoes on and taught her how to shake hands. "No limp fish!" he told her. Even now, she says, she crushes people's hands when she meets them.
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    Goldberg's elephant, top, and granddaughter Jennifer George's drawing below, from 1967. George says her grandfather swam with his shoes on and taught her how to shake hands. "No limp fish!" he told her. Even now, she says, she crushes people's hands when she meets them.
    Copyright Heirs of Rube Goldberg/Abrams ComicArts

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Many people know Rube Goldberg as an adjective — a shorthand description for a convoluted device or contraption. But Rube Goldberg was a real person — one who earned a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning and who captivated imaginations with drawings of complex chain reactions that completed the simplest of tasks.

Goldberg died in 1970, but Jennifer George, his granddaughter, has collected the zany world he created in a coffee table book, The Art of Rube Goldberg: (A) Inventive (B) Cartoon (C) Genius.

From 1912, this is the first of Goldberg's invention cartoons. Initially, he created only about a dozen such drawings over several years — until they caught on and he realized he had a hit on his hands.

From 1912, this is the first of Goldberg's invention cartoons. Initially, he created only about a dozen such drawings over several years — until they caught on and he realized he had a hit on his hands. Copyright Heirs of Rube Goldberg/Abrams ComicArts hide caption

itoggle caption Copyright Heirs of Rube Goldberg/Abrams ComicArts

Her grandfather's drawings are "kind of the analog to the digital age," George tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "Any Rube Goldberg machine worth its salt goes viral on the Web today."

The Art of Rube Goldberg

A) Inventive (B) Cartoon (C) Genius

by Jennifer George, Adam Gopnik, Andrew Baron, Al Jaffee and Carl Linich

Hardcover, 191 pages | purchase

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The Art of Rube Goldberg
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A) Inventive (B) Cartoon (C) Genius
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"I think he was enraptured by the possibilities of complicated machines," adds Adam Gopnik, a staff writer for The New Yorker who wrote the book's introduction. Much of the appeal of Goldberg's ideas, he says, is how they are both complex, but also visibly tangible.

"My kids love to trace and follow [the drawings]. But the machines that they know best and the ones that they work with most often — computers ... iPhones — are sort of black boxes by comparison with the machines that Rube Goldberg's generation knew.

"So I also think that we look at Goldberg's drawings with a certain amount of nostalgia for a lost era, when our machinery was at least lucid," Gopnik says.

Many of Goldberg's works center on a fictional inventor, Professor Lucifer G. Butts, whose bizarre mishaps help him dream up ideas for machines. In one, Mr. Butts trips at a miniature golf course, giving him an idea for a device that empties ash trays by way of two love birds, a piece of string, a watering can, a shirt, a framed portrait, a dog and a rocket tied to a bag of asbestos.

The line drawing is a parody of actual patent drawings at the time, Gopnik explains. "It's the way drawings of that period, showing how complicated mechanisms really worked — only his always had this beautiful overcharge of needlessness."

Many of Goldberg's works center on a fictional inventor, Professor Butts, whose bizarre mishaps help him dream up ideas for machines. i i

Many of Goldberg's works center on a fictional inventor, Professor Butts, whose bizarre mishaps help him dream up ideas for machines. Abrams ComicArts/Copyright Heirs of Rube Goldberg hide caption

itoggle caption Abrams ComicArts/Copyright Heirs of Rube Goldberg
Many of Goldberg's works center on a fictional inventor, Professor Butts, whose bizarre mishaps help him dream up ideas for machines.

Many of Goldberg's works center on a fictional inventor, Professor Butts, whose bizarre mishaps help him dream up ideas for machines.

Abrams ComicArts/Copyright Heirs of Rube Goldberg

The National Cartoonists Society's annual award, the Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year, is named for Goldberg, the society's first president. Not that the honor was enough for him, Jennifer George laughs.

"When he was getting on in years, he was very upset that he had not won a Reuben. And my father had to explain to him, 'But you know, Rube, it's named after you!' "

Ultimately, Goldberg did win his own Reuben in 1967, three years before his death.

Almost 50 years later, Gopnik sees no end in sight for Goldberg's legacy. "We live at the end of the great mechanism," he says. "So we look back at [his ideas] ... with a certain longing for a world as neat, as sharp, as black and white and lucid as Goldberg's world was.

"So I think as long as we have a fascination with machines, with mechanisms, Goldberg's work will go on. "

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