By Fernando Quintero
06 March 2002 | Rube Goldberg, a 1904 graduate of what was then the University of California's School of Mining Engineering, is best known for his fanciful flights of invention - elaborate mechanical devices that helped with life's mundane tasks but relied on unreliable "parts" to make them work. Burning candles, frightened rabbits and monkeys were all cogs in Goldberg's machinery.
His ideas were so well known that he became the first living person to have his name entered in the dictionary. In Webster's, his name is used to designate "any very complicated invention, machine, scheme, etc. laboriously contrived to perform a seemingly simple operation."
But Goldberg was also a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist whose comics and editorials appeared in newspapers throughout the country between 1904 and the late 1960s.
Bancroft Library holds a large collection of Goldberg papers: more than 5,000 original cartoons, correspondence, manuscripts of articles and plays, and scrapbooks of clipped cartoons relating to his long and fascinating career.
"His drawing style was his own. So was his whimsical kind of humor," said Peter Hanff, deputy director at Bancroft Library. "There was also plenty of social commentary. Most of his drawings strike us as funny because his drawings are situational, they're of the thirties, fourties and fifties. But the contextual references are lost on the students of today. They see his drawings as old fashioned and quaint."
His cartoons from the early '20s - ink and grease-pen drawings carefully ensconced in large cardboard envelopes in the bowels of Bancroft seem prototypical. One recurring character in particular looks suspiciously similar to J. Wellington Wimpy, the hamburger-eating moocher in Elzie Segar's "Popeye." That cartoon series made its first public appearance in 1929, several years after Goldberg's King Features Syndicate strips were introduced.
Like opening a time capsule, Goldberg's drawings conjure up another time and place. Women are outfitted like flappers and men appear in oversized checkered suits. Still, the humor touches on universal themes and timeless stances: The underdog. Healthy skepticism. Irony.
"This is more than just topical, more than ephemeral," said Hanff, leafing through a stack of Goldberg cartoons. "Stepping aside from society's values with a sense of detachment ... is romantic. I don't think people realize he was such an artist. I think he really did invent himself."
San Francisco native
Goldberg found work as an engineer with the San Francisco Water and Sewers Department, but after six months convinced his father of his true calling. He was soon drawing for the sports section of the San Francisco Chronicle, and in 1907 began producing political and humorous cartoons for the New York Evening Mail.
In 1950, Goldberg switched to William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal, where he continued his political cartoons until 1964, when he retired at age 81. Throughout his career - which included song writing as well as work in vaudeville, motion pictures, radio and television - he produced nine books and even turned to sculpture during his final years. He died in 1970.
Today, Goldberg's name is often evoked to describe a wildly complex program, system or set of rules - such as our "Rube Goldberg-like tax system." And the annual National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest at Purdue University, as well as a growing number of statewide high school contests, continue the legacy of Goldberg's comic inventions for generations to come.
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