Everyone has heard something described as a Rube Goldberg machine, and most of us know what this means: some crazy convoluted way of accomplishing a task that would otherwise be quite simple. That’s how Webster’s defines it. The phase most often applies to overly complicated software but it was also applied to the Clinton health care plan and might also be applied to emerging Social Security reform.
How fascinating, then, to discover the man and legend behind, and to reflect on his remarkable turn of mind and the light it sheds on the world around us. Reuben Goldberg, born 1883 in San Francisco, the son of Hannah and Max Goldberg who had immigrated from Prussia and lived in New York before moving West.
Rube studied to be an engineer and did that for a while until he could convince his father that his avocation as a cartoonist should be his profession. Rube worked in San Francisco and later in New York, after a long and wonderful life as a genius cartoonist but also a writer, actor, and sculptor. Even aside from his contraptions, he was popular for his long-running series called “Foolish Questions,” which was turned into a board game. He made animated cartoons and wrote short stories too. He received the Pulitzer Prize and died in 1970.
But of course it was his cartoon inventions that made his name. A book called Inventions (NY: Simon Schuster, 2000) collects his most famous material, mostly consisting of hilarious and overcomplicated machinery to accomplish simple tasks like turning a page of music or emptying out sand from shoes or closing a window and swatting a fly or prevent a dinner plate from sliding in the dining room of a rocking boat. In a goofy sort of way, his works celebrates the inventor and innovator, and the problem-solving spirit. All of it was justly popular during the so-called Age of Invention, and seems to have experienced a revival today.
But there’s an edge here too: Goldberg’s work ridicules intellectualism unhinged from the market test. As Rothbard wrote about entrepreneurship, and Stephen Carson recently elaborated, it is not enough merely to conjure up an idea; the idea must be backed by real property put at risk in the real world and subjected to the market test. Innovation alone does not make for progress. It is innovation within the framework of a market economy that serves society.
The sheer goofy genius of Goldberg’s work also illustrates a Hayekian theme of the error of rationalism detached from reality. Society works not because a single mastermind has preset all the moving parts. It works because people find ways to cooperate through private actions that follow signs and rules that cannot be anticipated but can nonetheless be coordinated. Society and its workings cannot be mapped out and the attempt to do so can create frameable images but not civilizations.
Each Goldberg contraption takes a few minutes to figure out, as the cartoonist explains to the reader the workings of each part. There’s always at least one implausible step that will guarantee failure in real life, but that’s also the fun. Sometimes it involves supposing that people will do something they are not likely to do — an Arabia dwarf acrobat reaching for a trapeze the right moment, for example. Sometimes it involves a problem of timing — thinking here of his fire extinguisher that depends at a crucial point on a frog’s leg motions moving a knife that cuts a chain!
Sometimes the whole thing is obviously nuts from the very outset. A good example is “The Latest Simple Flyswatter”
Carbolic acid (A drops on string (B causing it to break and release elastic of bean shooter (C which projects ball (D) into bunch of garlic (E) causing it to fall into syrup can (F) and splash syrup violently against side wall. Fly (G) buzzes with glee and goes for syrup, his favorite dish. Butler-dog (H) mistakes hum of fly’s wings for door buzzer and runs to meet visitor, pulling rope (I) which turns stop-go signal (J) and causes baseball bat (K) to sock fly who falls to floor unconscious. As fly drops to floor pet trout (L) jumps for him, misses, and lands in net (M). Weight of fish forces shoe (N) down on fallen fly and puts him out of the running for all time.
What surprised me — though it should not have — was to discover that Mr. Goldberg seems to have been very solid on politics too. All the drawings in the politics section show government as the most complicated and unworkable machinery of all, that nonetheless does accomplish its primary goal of giving some people power at others’ expense.
This drawing is perhaps the best visual description of central planning I’ve seen.
Goldberg’s art exhibits a disdain for supposed experts who have an inflated sense of their own mastery. The class that presumes to rob people for their own good comes under special scrutiny. Thus did Goldberg not spare the state and its minions. Taxes in particular, low by the standards of our own time, came in for hard knocks under his pen. Here, laughing gas is applied in order to keep the working from noticing how much the government is taking from him.
How charming to discover that the web has an official Rube Goldberg website, and that there is an annual Robe Goldberg Machine Contest at Purdue and also one for high school students. You don’t need to submit or attend to enjoy Goldberg’s genius. The book Inventions will keep you busy for months or you can examine many machines at RubeGoldberg.com.