Rube Goldberg machine

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A Rube Goldberg machine is a contraption, invention, device or apparatus that is deliberately over-engineered or overdone to perform a very simple task in a very complicated fashion, usually including a chain reaction. The expression is named after American cartoonist and inventor Rube Goldberg (1883–1970).

Over the years, the expression has expanded to mean any confusing or complicated system. For example, news headlines include "Is Rep. Bill Thomas the Rube Goldberg of Legislative Reform?"[1] and "Retirement 'insurance' as a Rube Goldberg machine".[2]


Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin

Rube Goldberg's cartoons became well known for depicting complicated devices that performed simple tasks in indirect, convoluted ways. The example on the right is Goldberg's "Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin", which was later reprinted in a few book collections, including the postcard book Rube Goldberg's Inventions! and the hardcover Rube Goldberg: Inventions, both compiled by Maynard Frank Wolfe from the Rube Goldberg Archives.[3] The "Self-Operating Napkin" is activated when soup spoon (A) is raised to mouth, pulling string (B) and thereby jerking ladle (C), which throws cracker (D) past parrot (E). Parrot jumps after cracker and perch (F) tilts, upsetting seeds (G) into pail (H). Extra weight in pail pulls cord (I), which opens and lights automatic cigar lighter (J), setting off skyrocket (K) which causes sickle (L) to cut string (M) and allow pendulum with attached napkin to swing back and forth, thereby wiping chin.

In 1931, the Merriam–Webster dictionary adopted the word "Rube Goldberg" as an adjective defined as accomplishing something simple through complicated means.[4]

Similar expressions worldwide[edit]

Professional artists[edit]


Rube Goldberg machine designers participating in a competition in New Mexico.

In early 1987, Purdue University in Indiana started the annual National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, organized by the Phi Chapter of Theta Tau, a national engineering fraternity. In 2009, the Epsilon Chapter of Theta Tau established a similar annual contest at the University of California, Berkeley.

Since around 1997, the kinetic artist Arthur Ganson has been the emcee of the annual "Friday After Thanksgiving" (FAT) competition sponsored by the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Teams of contestants construct elaborate Rube Goldberg style chain-reaction machines on tables arranged around a large gymnasium. Each apparatus is linked by a string to its predecessor and successor machine. The initial string is ceremonially pulled, and the ensuing events are videotaped in closeup, and simultaneously projected on large screens for viewing by the live audience. After the entire cascade of events has finished, prizes are then awarded in various categories and age levels. Videos from several previous years' contests are viewable on the MIT Museum website.[7]

The Chain Reaction Contraption Contest is an annual event hosted at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, PA where high school teams each build a Rube Goldberg machine to complete some simple task (which changes from year to year) in 20 steps or more (with some additional constraints on size, timing, safety, etc.).

On Food Network's TV show "Challenge", competitors in 2011 were once required to create a Rube Goldberg machine out of sugar.[citation needed]

An event called Mission Possible in Science Olympiad involves students building a Rube Goldberg-like device to perform a certain series of tasks.

In April 2012, the Bosch company hosted an event called the "Playground of Engineers" in Hungary where the participant teams had to perform a series of tasks wherein they collected coins. Later that day, the main challenge was to build an overly complicated Goldberg Machine, the goal of which was to switch on a car dashboard. The teams were able to buy additional items with their collected coins above the standard issue equipment to make their machine more complicated. The main criteria of the judges were complexity, operating time and the number of components used.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Economist's View: Is Rep. Bill Thomas the Rube Goldberg of Legislative Reform?. (2005-06-06). Retrieved on 2011-05-06.
  2. ^ Social Security's Progressive Paradox – Reason Magazine. (2005-05-02). Retrieved on 2011-05-06.
  3. ^ Wolfe, Maynard Frank (2000). Rube Goldberg: Inventions. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0684867249. 
  4. ^ "Rube Goldberg" (Webpage). Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Retrieved 2009-08-05. 
  5. ^ Die Weltmaschine des Franz Gsellmann. (2010-12-18). Retrieved on 2011-05-06.
  6. ^ History – Historic Figures: William Heath Robinson (1872–1944). BBC. Retrieved on 2011-05-06.
  7. ^ "Friday After Thanksgiving: Chain Reaction". MIT Museum [website]. Retrieved 2011-05-06. 

External links[edit]