The Mind-Boggling Art Of Rube Goldberg

See the adventures of Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, Rube Goldberg’s protagonist in many of his 50,000 cartoons, in a new book of Goldberg’s art.

From the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary: Rube Gold·berg. adjective \rüb-ˈgōl(d)-ˌbərg\: accomplishing by complex means what seemingly could be done simply <a kind of Rube Goldberg contraption . . . with five hundred moving parts —L. T. Grant>; also: characterized by such complex means. also: Rube Gold·berg·i·an


Over the course of his 72-year career, inventor-engineer-humorist-sculptor-artist-genius Rube Goldberg wrote and illustrated nearly 50,000 cartoons, which were syndicated in daily newspapers all over the world. Ultimately, Goldberg’s name became an adjective, synonymous with the delightfully complex chain reactions that his main character, Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, was constantly inventing.

Out from Abrams Books is The Art of Rube Goldberg, which presents 192 pages of the wacky polymath’s drawings, from those first published in his high school yearbook to those that earned him a Pulitzer Prize for political cartooning in 1948.

“When we started this project, I didn’t have any idea exactly how much material we were going to be sifting through,” Jennifer George, the book’s author and Rube Goldberg’s granddaughter, tells Co.Design. “I knew my grandfather the way you know your grandfather–as someone I had fun with on the weekends. I knew he was a famous cartoonist, but I had never taken the time to look at the work. Making this book forced me to do that, and what came with it was kind of a profound realization and understanding of who he was.” Until now, she says, there had never been a quintessential book of Goldberg’s work.

In these pages, we meet the Automatic Suicide Device For Unlucky Stock Speculators; a Self-Operating Napkin; and a Simple Fly Swatter operated by fish, butler-dogs, a baseball bat, and a slingshot.

Professor Butts’s misadventures are still funny decades after they were written. “A barber puts a scalding towel on Professor Butts’s face and while he is screaming with pain he thinks up an invention for digging up bait for fishing”–as we all do when confronted with scalding towels.

An app called RubeWorks released with the book delightfully animates Rube Goldberg machines. If Goldberg were alive today, what would he think of all this newfangled tech? What would be his medium of choice? “I think he still would have been drawing,” George speculates. “Or he would’ve been in Silicon Valley, doing something tech-y and geeky. He would’ve been in awe of Steve Jobs. Even though my grandfather is known for the most complex of machines, he really admired simplicity, and great design is all about simplifying work rather than mucking it up with extra moves.”


Goldberg’s legacy lives on in the work of Adam Sadowsky of SynnLabs, who created an insanely complicated Rube Goldberg machine for OK Go’s “This Too Shall Pass” music video, and, George says, in France’s movement of Parkour obsessives.

With an introduction by New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik, the book’s cover image is a collage of a Rube Goldberg machine with interconnected pieces that move around when you wiggle a little lever. The Art of Rube Goldberg is available for $37 here.


About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.