What Fictional Inventions Say About American Ingenuity

The making of America.
April 24 2014 2:48 PM

Taking Rube Goldberg Seriously

What fictional inventions say about American ingenuity.

Rube Goldberg & family, April 4, 1929.
Rube Goldberg and his family on April 4, 1929.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Stop me if you’ve heard of these useless products: powdered water, double-sided playing cards, screen doors for a submarine. Ten-year-old me thought that these joke inventions were the height of humor.

Rebecca Onion Rebecca Onion

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.

Twentieth-century popular culture is full of frivolous, ill-conceived, ambitious inventions, as well as clueless or venal inventors. But some of the best invention humor has its roots in the 1920s and 1930s. Why was this period prime time for satirical inventions?

In those years, visual culture of all kinds—fine art, industrial design, children’s books, Army recruitment posters—echoed the machine in form or motif. But people were interested not just in machines of the charismatic and visually appealing type (see: automobiles and streamlined trains), but also in the idea of the machine: the mechanical nature of the systems underpinning modern life.

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Literary nonfiction, newly popular, promised to explain everything to reading adults and children: how leather was made, what chemistry was all about, the entire history of the world in “outline form.” Cutaway illustrations in encyclopedias and magazines directed the eye to follow the interlocking systems that made up complex entities like a hotel, a mine, or an ocean liner.

Although we often associate the growth of consumer culture with the 1950s, the 1920s and 1930s were also a time when people’s homes filled with new things. Manufacturers were getting much better at mass production, electrification (in both home and factory) had advanced, and advertising was booming. People began to buy on credit, making bigger purchases possible, and homes got washing machines, toasters, coffee pots. The little things changed, too: Suddenly, homes were stocked with canned goods, rayon clothing, factory-rolled cigarettes, safety razors.

This was all very hopeful and utopian, if a bit much. Enter Rube Goldberg, whose satires skewered the new inventions using the technical language of the time. Goldberg majored in engineering in college and had been trained in mechanical drawing. His famous Goldberg devices drew on this background. The artist apparently spent up to 30 hours in planning each, studying actual patents for inspiration.

This delicious combination of fantasy and reality made the satire work. “No matter how crazy the inventions may appear,” Goldberg’s biographer Peter C. Marzio writes, “the instructions explaining how the parts interact are deadly serious.”

The height of Goldberg’s productivity, when it came to his famous devices, was the 1920s and 1930s; these invention panels were reissued throughout the ’40s and ’50s. In his first cartoons, published in Collier’s magazine from 1929 to 1931, Goldberg had an alter ego: Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts. While fictional eccentric inventors are now dime a dozen (see the TV Tropes list for “Bungling Inventor” or this Gizmodo roundup, for starters), Butts was an early prototype, and audiences loved him.

Goldberg has had a huge cultural footprint (see: OK Go; Sesame Street; Final Destination). Often the machines that are now called “Goldberg devices” have lost their satirical edge, offering only the simpler joy of watching a chain reaction go through its paces. But Goldberg’s own drawings were rich with meaning, when read against the backdrop of their time.

In critiquing the apparently pervasive desire to “do an easy thing the hard way,” as he put it, the cartoonist was poking holes in the idea that any invention was a good invention. The fantastical nature of the Goldberg contraptions makes the messy thought process of invention visible. The processes defy conventions of time and space, yet are represented with utmost seriousness.

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