Joking Aside, Rube Goldberg Got Tech Right


Rube Goldberg cartoon “If the Soap Falls Out of the Bathtub, Try This …” and “Foolish Questions,” on page 10 of the November 18, 1921 Duluth Herald.

From Collectors Weekly by Ben Marks:

Every day, exciting new technologies and inventions designed to make our lives better make us crazy instead—if we’re lucky. A document you’ve been working on all day disappears from your computer, having been saved to an obscure folder you didn’t know existed; a social-media app secretly shares your personal information with Russian hackers, spawning a Constitutional crisis; a self-driving car kills a pedestrian, giving us yet another reason to fear the future. Indeed, it’s been quite a while since any invention could claim to be unreservedly useful (spoons come to mind), while most inventions of the digital kind have difficulty clearing even the low, Hippocratic hurdle of doing no harm.

Rube Goldberg (1883-1970) understood well the limits of improvement through invention, as a new exhibition of his drawings and cartoons at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco hilariously shows. Armed with little more than a pen and the laws of physics, Goldberg routinely pushed his ideas for inventions to their preposterous conclusions, solving problems that didn’t exist and making the simplest acts of everyday life as complicated as possible. Thus, a contraption worn on the head to wipe one’s lips with a napkin after sipping a spoonful of soup consists of no less than 14 moving parts, most of which must be reset after a single use. That device was memorialized as a U.S. postage stamp in 1995, but an even sillier “appliance” from 1929, concocted by Goldberg’s editorial alter ego, Professor Lucifer G. Butts, could lick a stamp in just 16 steps, with the help of two adults and a dog, of course.

Read the rest of the article at Collectors Weekly

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