Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Connor. Connor Wonders, “What is a Rube Goldberg machine?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Connor!

Have you ever seen a Rube Goldberg machine in action? You probably have, even if you didn’t know what it was. A Rube Goldberg machine is a contraption that uses a chain reaction to carry out a simple task. It performs a very basic job in a complicated way. 

Let’s look at an example. We’ll describe a Rube Goldberg machine that wipes a person’s chin with a napkin. That’s a pretty simple task, right? Well, wait til you hear how the machine does it!

First, a person picks up a soup spoon. This action pulls a string. That jerks a ladle, which throws a cracker, which shoots past a parrot. The parrot jumps for the cracker, and its perch tilts and drops seeds. The seeds land in a pail. The extra weight in the pail pulls a cord which opens and lights an automatic cigar lighter. This sets off a rocket that causes a sickle to cut a string. This allows a pendulum with a napkin attached to it to swing back and forth to wipe the chin.

Whew! Did you follow that series of events? Why on Earth would someone invent such a complex machine? To answer that question, we must take a closer look at Rube Goldberg.

Reuben Lucius “Rube” Goldberg was born on July 4, 1883, in San Francisco, California. As a teen, he loved to draw. He even received some basic art instruction when he worked with a sign painter. Still, he chose not to pursue a career in art. Instead, he went to the University of California at Berkeley. There, he earned his degree in mining engineering.

Goldberg went to work mapping out sewer pipes and water mains in San Francisco. That didn’t hold his interest for long. He began drawing cartoons for local San Francisco papers. Then, he moved to New York where he landed a job as a cartoonist for the Evening Mail.

He used his engineering background to create funny cartoons. They featured complicated machines that were described as new inventions. They did easy tasks through a series of steps involving chain reactions. The public quickly fell in love with Rube’s “inventions.”

His work became popular nationwide. The art world also loved his works. Some of them were soon displayed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Rube eventually even made it to Hollywood. There, his movie script “Soup to Nuts” introduced a trio who would soon become famous as the Three Stooges.

In 1931, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary added “Rube Goldberg” as an adjective. It meant “accomplishing by complex means what seemingly could be done simply.” For Goldberg, his inventions were a way of seeing the humor in everyday situations. He loved that his work made people laugh. 

Over time, the cartoon inventions leapt off the pages and became real-life working machines. They were built purely for the joy of engineering and watching science in action. Goldberg’s work has inspired millions. People love building their own complex machines to carry out simple, mundane tasks.

Today, people even hold Rube Goldberg machine contests. In 1987, the Phi Chapter of Theta Tau, a national engineering fraternity, started the annual National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest at Purdue University.

Each year, groups compete to make the most elaborate, creative contraptions. How complex do they get? Very! For example, a Purdue University team once won the competition with a machine that turned on a flashlight. It used a 125-step process that included a toy rocket, a simulated meteor, and a mock fire!

Have you ever built a Rube Goldberg machine? Would you like to? What simple task might you carry out through a complicated process? Maybe you’ll build the next award-winning contraption!

Standards: CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.SL.1

Wonder What's Next?

Tomorrow in Wonderopolis you’ll find out why it’s sometimes a good thing to be grounded!