Even those who are too young to remember Rube Goldberg the person are probably familiar with “Rube Goldberg” the adjective: “accomplishing by complex means what seemingly could be done simply,” according to Webster’s.
Take sharpening a pencil, for instance.
For Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and inventor Goldberg, who died in 1970, a “simple” way to sharpen a pencil would begin with: opening a window, then flying a kite, whose string would lift a small door, allowing moths to escape and eat a shirt. As the shirt becomes lighter, a shoe steps on a switch which heats an iron which burns a hole in a pair of pants. The smoke from the pants then enters a hole in a tree, which forces out a possum, which jumps into a basket, that pulls a rope, which lifts a cage permitting a bird to chew wood from a pencil.
While Goldberg, who was a trained engineer, created these types of zany machines only in cartoons, several have been brought to life in all their wacky ingenuity at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh in a wondrous exhibit, “Rube Goldberg: the World of Hilarious Invention,” running through May 5, 2019.
The Children’s Museum created the exhibit in partnership with the Heirs of Rube Goldberg, and with support from the Fisher Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Richard King Mellon Foundation.
Although Goldberg’s family had opportunities to work with other museums to create this exhibit — which will begin a 10-year tour to other museums and science centers throughout the country after its Pittsburgh run — the heirs found they were “in sync” in terms of vision with the Children’s Museum, according to Jennifer George, Goldberg’s granddaughter.
“I wanted to have a way to use the zeitgeist of my grandfather’s work as an experiential event, something where it is not just reading his cartoons or looking at his work, but something that took you into the work, into the humor or into the processes,” said George, speaking from her home in New York. “And I have to tell you, during the process with the team in Pittsburgh — they blew me away. They are such a creative group. They put the funny in, and that’s not easy to do.”
The exhibit includes a 3D version of Goldberg’s “A Simple Way to Sharpen a Pencil”; interactive Rube Goldberg machines that allow visitors to move balls and ramps to trigger chain reactions, then figure out how they work by resetting each part; an opportunity for visitors to create their own cartoons, using Goldberg’s work as inspiration; and the chance to step into a 3D replica of Goldberg’s “Self-Operating Napkin Machine” for a photo opp.
The exhibit was designed to appeal to children and adults of various interests and ages, said Anne Fullenkamp, the museum’s director of design.
“It’s so inclusive,” she said. “If you’re a science kid, an actor, a writer … there are just so many ways for kids to get involved.”
Also included in the exhibit is a “Rube-inspired” way to paint a picture in a 3D version of Ed Steckley’s “An Epic Way to Paint a Picture.” Steckley is an illustrator who worked with George in creating a children’s book inspired by the inventions of Goldberg, “Rube Goldberg’s Simple Normal Humdrum School Day,” which features a 7- or 8-year-old character based on a young version of George’s celebrated grandfather.
“The Children’s Museum wanted to include life-size working machines, not just based on my grandfather’s work,” but also on the work of Steckley to show “how we are taking Rube into the next millennium,” George said.
Another notable aspect of the exhibit are the prescient Goldberg cartoons displayed at its entrance: One depicts a patient being treated by a doctor on a television or computer screen, another shows a man with a traveling video camera recording every aspect of his life. These drawings were created decades before such innovations existed.
“Toward the end of his life, he was interviewed for the Smithsonian exhibit,” George recalled. “I heard the interview — it was about two weeks before he died. He was always being asked about the inventions. And it kind of bewildered him that this is what he was known for, after 50,000 cartoons. This very tiny slice of his oeuvre is what he would be known for. It obviously touched a nerve.
“It was the dawn of the Industrial Revolution,” she explained. “And he was poking fun. He said, ‘They are really not machines; they are really satirical representations of progressive nothing.’ I think there is this overwhelming almost Dadaist thing that he came to understand later in his life: that we always kind of overcomplicate our lives in an effort to try to simplify it. It’s just so, so human. And if you can laugh at yourself, that’s half the battle.”
While George does not believe her grandfather was predicting the future, she does acknowledge the foresight of his work.
“There’s the Forbes cover of the future of home entertainment,” which is in the exhibit, she said. “In 1967 he was asked to do a drawing of the future of home entertainment. Every person in the room has their own screen, and there is the mother of the household sitting in her comfortable chair and her screen is on a stand, and there is the globe behind the stand, with a camera projected [outward] and on the screen are skiers — so she’s on the World Wide Web, watching skiing live. So I look at things like that and I have to say, I kind of wonder. It was the stuff of science fiction in those days.”
Although she was just 11 when her grandfather died, George does remember enough about him — and has since read everything she could get her hands on about him — to know that he would be “thoroughly amazed that people are still talking about him,” she said. “I think he would be thrilled to see kids engaged in something that he left behind. Just seeing how his work has been interpreted, reimagined, for all kinds of purposes — education, humor, inspiration. It would make him pretty happy.”
On March 3, the Children’s Museum will be hosting a Rube Goldberg Contest, in which school-age children will compete in building their own Rube Goldberg machines. Rube Goldberg contests have been held since 1988, pitting teams of students against each other in designing humorous contraptions that accomplish simple tasks in complicated ways. The competitions “encourage teamwork and out-the-box thinking,” according to rubegoldberg.com.
Area schools are encouraged to compete in the Children’s Museum’s March 3 event, which will be for ages 8 through 11, said Fullenkamp. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.