This Day in Jewish History

1970: A Man Who Would Leave the Sewers for Cartooning Passes On

To this day Rube Goldberg's name is associated with impossibly complex systems to achieve the simplest of tasks.

Rube Goldberg, 1916: An "Advertisement in The Moving Picture World".
Wikimedia Commons

On December 7, 1970, the great cartoonist Rube Goldberg died, at the age of 87. To this day, Goldberg’s name is used to characterize a complex mechanism that goes to extreme and convoluted lengths to perform a simple task.

Reuben Garrett Lucius Goldberg was born on July 4, 1883, in San Francisco, California. Both his parents were German-Jewish immigrants. Reuben was the third of their seven children, four of whom survived to adulthood. His father, Max Goldberg, was a prosperous land speculator in the years when real-estate prices were booming in the West. Later, at different times, he also served as the city’s police and fire commissioner. His mother was the former Hannah Cohen.

Reuben began tracing images from books at age four, and at 12 began taking art lessons from a sign painter. However, his very practical father made it clear that he expected his son to acquire a practical profession. (In a memoir, quoted by Stefan Kanfer in an article about the artist published earlier this year in the City Journal, Goldberg recounted a conversation between his father and a California political boss, in which Max confessed that his son dreamt of becoming an artist. The politico asked if such unhealthy tendencies ran in the family, and Max supposedly insisted that, “Our family record is clean as a whistle. We’ve never had a single solitary artist in it -- not one.”)

Engineering loses Rube very quickly

After graduating from Lowell High School in 1900, an obedient Rube attended the College of Mining at the University of California, Berkeley. Armed with an engineering diploma, in 1904 he took a job designing sewers with the San Francisco water department.

He lasted all of six months before crossing the street and taking an entry-level position in the sports department of the San Francisco Chronicle. In return for having the occasional drawing published, Goldberg swept the department’s floors.

Rube Goldberg: "Something for Nothing" 1940 GM How Gasoline is Converted to Engine Power The cartoonist Rube Goldberg in a clip created for General Motors in 1940: "Something for Nothing" H

Within a year, Goldberg had moved to the San Francisco Bulletin, and then in 1907, determined to make it in the big leagues, to New York, where he took a job, again as a sports artist, at the New York Evening Mail.

His breakthrough came the following year, when Goldberg filled in for Evening Mail’s daily cartoonist, and he drew of an image of a man who has fallen 50 stories, and is asked, “Are you hurt?” His response: “No, I’m taking my beauty sleep.”

That was the first of 450 “Foolish Questions” to which Rube Goldberg provided snappy answers over the next year and a half. Another depicted a man who, when asked, “Are you getting a shave?” retorts, “No, I’m having the snow scraped off my face.”

The inventions of Butts

In his 14 years at the Mail, Goldberg drew a number of long-running comic strips, which were syndicated nationally, and earned him an unprecedented salary of $50,000 a year. He began drawing his trademark “Inventions of Prof. Lucas Gorgonzola Butts” for Collier’s magazine in 1929.

In an unpublished memoir, Goldberg described how he imagined employing “acrobatic monkeys, dancing mice, chattering false teeth, electric eels, whirling dervishes and other incongruous elements” to accomplish “such Herculean tasks as shining shoes, opening screen doors, keeping moths out of clothes closets”

Screwball inventor Prof. Lucifer G. Butts, an invention of cartoonist Rube Goldberg, created in 1928. The middle initial stands for "Gorgonzola", one of Goldberg's favorite "silly-sounding" words.
Wikimedia Commons

In 1938, Goldberg began drawing political cartoons for the New York Sun, and a decade later won the Pulitzer Prize for a drawing he titled “Peace Today,” in which he depicted an American family perched innocently upon a giant “Atomic Bomb,” which in turn balances on the edge of a cliff, teetering between “World Control” and “World Destruction.”  

Before that, in 1916, Goldberg married Irma Seeman. They had two sons, George, who became a Broadway and Hollywood producer, and Thomas, a painter. At their father’s urging, apparently out of fear that “Goldberg” was too obviously Jewish a name, both men changed their surname to “George” during World War II.  

In his 80s, having increasing difficulty drawing with a pen, Goldberg took up sculpture, working in both metal and clay. Two weeks before his death, on this day in 1970, Goldberg got to attend the opening of a retrospective exhibition of his work at the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C., called “Do It the Hard Way.”

From a Pathe newsreel, ~1924, just 10 years after animation had been invented, showing rare footage of Rube and his two sons Jennifer George