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Jack Smith

The mad vision of Rube Goldberg, wherein getting from here to there is worth delaying

February 25, 1987|Jack Smith

Whatever happened to Rube Goldberg?

Rube died in 1970 at the age of 87. That's what happened to Rube Goldberg.

What I mean is, whatever happened to his mad vision of this age of technology?

For those who are too young to remember him, Goldberg was a cartoonist who specialized in drawing ingenious inventions that accomplished trivial ends through laboriously complicated machinery. He satirized this marvelously inventive century in a way that we no longer seem to do. Finally we have become completely enslaved by our technological genius.

My friend Morry Pynoos, a graduate of UC Berkeley, has sent me a copy of CalReport, the alumni periodical, in which Goldberg, class of '04, is remembered.

It may be that Goldberg developed his flair for doing things the hard way when he was attending Berkeley while living in San Francisco. He once recalled: "The commute took me an hour and a half each way via cable car, ferry, train, and walking."

Goldberg was enrolled in the College of Mining. He was thrown out of the class in analytic mechanics for drawing caricatures of the professor.

That incident showed where his true talent lay. Perhaps his analytic mechanics professor was the prototype of Prof. Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, who became Goldberg's own inventor.

Goldberg once said that maybe his cartoons were a throwback to his difficulty with complicated mathematical and engineering problems in the College of Mining.

"At the time of my graduation," he said at a dinner in his honor just two weeks before he died, "I thought the course I had taken was a complete loss. But later I came to the conclusion that nothing is wasted--especially if you have a sense of humor."

Cartoons are so visual and graphic that they're hard to represent in words, but I will try to describe one of Prof. Butts' wonderful inventions, as drawn by Goldberg.

This one is called "How to tee up a golf ball without bending over." Golfer pulls trigger of a long pipe-barrel gun with the end of the barrel bent in an L toward the ground. Gun drives tee into ground. Report of gun causes groundhog to run into hole, releasing cannonball which rests on a rod that is suspended from the gun barrel and attached to the groundhog by a chain. Cannonball falls onto atomizer bulb, causing atomizer to spray a shirt, which hangs by a hook from the far end of the gun barrel. Shirt shrinks, gently opening ice tongs to which its tail is attached. Ice tongs release golf ball, which drops onto tee.

Get the picture?

Here's another one, called "Easy way to get out of playing bridge."

When host opens bridge table, a mechanical arm wearing a glove slaps fencing master, who is standing on a shelf facing a figure that looks like a penguin with a large knife for a left wing. The fencing master accepts the slap as a challenge and runs his foil through the figure. The figure falls from shelf, cutting leash and releasing Italian dog. Dog grabs strand of spaghetti which is attached to a rope that runs through a pulley to the bottom of a bucket of whitewash. Whitewash spills over guest's head. Bridge players think he is a statue and leave him alone.

Those two are rather simple. I remember really complicated Goldbergs in which the object, at the end of a series of steps accomplished by wheels, cogs, springs, levers and animals, is something like the salting of a piece of fish.

In his later years it evidently troubled Goldberg that people took our miraculous inventions for granted.

For an exhibition of his work in 1970 he wrote: "When your memory goes back to the days when the telephone was a strange, ugly contraption standing in the hall . . . when you recall a time when it was a miracle to press a button and see a bulb light up in the front parlor; when in your mind there is still a picture of yourself attending a matinee at the Grove Street theater for a dime . . . when your eyes beheld a camel actually moving its head on the motion-picture screen, when there were only four automobiles in the United States, then you wonder at the indifference with which everyone accepts the miracles of modern civilization--men landing on the moon and refrigerators that make instant ice cubes. Today, every stunning achievement becomes just another happening in the headlong course of 'advancement' that leads us to God knows where. . . . "

I find it interesting that Goldberg mentions men landing on the moon and refrigerators that make instant ice cubes in the same sentence. It shows the range of his wonder.

Goldberg usually made his point with humor; but in 1947, after our scientists had devised the miracle of the century, he drew a serious cartoon for the New York Sun. It showed an atom bomb with a house balanced on it. The bomb teetered on the edge of a precipice called World Control, hanging over an abyss called World Destruction. It won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1948.

Cartoonists are still trying to find new ways of making that same point today.

I'm not sure why we loved Rube Goldberg so. Maybe because he made us see that not all the inventions we were being subjected to were really worth the effort.

Do we, after all, need gasoline-powered leaf blowers?

I'll bet Rube Goldberg could have accomplished the same end with a dog, a cat, a bowling ball, a couple of levers, and a goat.

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