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 Americancartoonist 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?" and "Retirement 'insurance' as a Rube Goldberg machine".
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. 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.
Similar expressions worldwide
Australia — cartoonist Bruce Petty depicts such themes as the economy, international relations or other social issues as complicated interlocking machines that manipulate, or are manipulated by, people.
Austria — Franz Gsellmann worked for decades on a machine that he named the Weltmaschine ("world machine"), having many similarities to a Rube Goldberg machine.
Czech Republic — such machines are sometimes called "Raketoplán" ("Space Shuttle") mainly in the IT industry describing simple tasks being solved with unnecessarily complicated and expensive solutions.
France — a similar machine is called usine à gaz, or gas refinery, suggesting a very complicated factory with pipes running everywhere and a risk of explosion. It is now used mainly among programmers to indicate a complicated program, or in journalism to refer to a bewildering law or regulation.
Germany — such machines are often called "Was-passiert-dann-Maschine" ("What happens next machine") for the German name of similar devices used by Kermit the Frog in the children's TV show Sesame Street.
Great Britain — a Heath Robinson contraption, named after the fantastical comic machinery illustrated by British cartoonist W. Heath Robinson, has a similar meaning but predates the Rube Goldberg machine, originating in the UK in 1912.
India — the humorist and children's author Sukumar Ray, in his nonsense poem "Abol tabol", had a character (Uncle) with a Rube Goldberg-like machine called "Uncle's contraption"(khuror kol). This word is used colloquially in Bengali to mean a complicated and useless object.
Japan — "Pythagorean devices" or "Pythagoras switch". PythagoraSwitch (ピタゴラスイッチ, "Pitagora Suicchi") is the name of a TV show featuring such devices. Another related genre is the Japanese art of chindōgu, which involves inventions that are hypothetically useful but of limited actual utility.
Norway — cartoonist and storyteller Kjell Aukrust created a cartoon character named Reodor Felgen, who constantly invented complicated machinery. Though it was often built out of unlikely parts, it always performed very well. Felgen stars as the inventor of an extremely powerful but overly complicated car, Il Tempo Gigante, in the Ivo Caprino animated puppet film Flåklypa Grand Prix (1975).
Spain — devices akin to Goldberg's machines are known as Inventos del TBO (tebeo), named after those that several cartoonists ( Nit, Tínez, Marino Benejam, Frances Tur and finally Ramón Sabatés) made up and drew for a section in the TBOmagazine, allegedly designed by some "Professor Franz" from Copenhagen.
Turkey — such devices are known as Zihni Sinir Proceleri, allegedly invented by a certain Prof. Zihni Sinir ("Crabby Mind"), a curious scientist character created by İrfan Sayar in 1977 for the cartoon magazine Gırgır. The cartoonist later went on to open a studio selling actual working implementations of his designs.
Peter Fischli & David Weiss, Swiss artists known for their art installation movie Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go, 1987). It documents a 30 minutes long causal chain assembled of everyday objects, resembling a Rube Goldberg machine.
Tim Hawkinson (not to be confused with Tim Hawkins) has made several art pieces that contain complicated apparatuses that are generally used to make abstract art or music. Many of them are centered around the randomness of other devices (such as a slot machine) and are dependent on them to create some menial effect.
Rube Goldberg machine designers participating in a competition in New Mexico.
Since around 1997, the kinetic artistArthur 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.
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.