This is the grave of Rube Goldberg.
Born in 1883 in San Francisco, Goldberg grew up in a Jewish household and showed interest in art from a very young age. His parents encouraged him in this, evidently on the practical side of that world. He got drawing lessons from a sign painter, for instance. But this was an upwardly mobile family. His father was police and fire commissioner for the city, which was a very prominent position. Drawing was great–it would prepare the young boy to be an engineer. But a professional artist? That was a whole other deal and not so OK. So Rube played along. He went to the University of California and got his engineering degree. He got hired by the Water and Sewers Department in San Francisco. He had a long and pretty quiet career of him if he wanted that. But that’s not really what he wanted.
Six months after he got his “professional” job, Goldberg resigned. He hated it. He quit and got a job with the San Francisco Chronicle as a sports cartoonist. He was very good and very successful. He moved to New York in 1907 to draw there with the Evening Mail. The next year he had a very popular comic strip with Foolish Questions. He was also working as a standup comedian in the vaudeville scene of New York during these years, which of course influenced the humor in his cartoons.
What Goldberg became most known for is his invention cartoons, which eventually led, years later, to the Rube Goldberg Machine. He was simply very interested in inventions but also thought they were funny. So he drew a lot of ridiculous inventions and the egos that made them. Generally, Goldberg’s interest was everyday life. There was also something critically different about Goldberg compared to the terrible cartoonists in the contemporary newspapers. See, Goldberg wasn’t real interested in building a franchise. He had lots of ideas and he wanted to run them. He also realized that he wasn’t going to stay fresh telling the same story year after year. So instead of the four Family Circus kids having an “amusing” situation with their parents or late era Charles Schulz (as great as he was) basically having to create new characters like Spike to keep him interested, Goldberg would simply end his comic after a year or so and then start a new one. Almost all of them were comedies, including Mike and Ike (I assume this is the origin of the candy name), Boob McNutt, and Foolish Questions. Every now and then though he would draw a serious cartoon, such as the soap opera Doc Wright. But there was one big exception–The Inventions of Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts ran from 1914 to 1964, a remarkable run, especially considering all the other work he was doing at the time.
The big syndicates became interested in Goldberg quickly. In 1912, the McClure syndicate began to spread his cartoons around the nation. Soon, Goldberg was part of a bidding war with the Hearst syndicate constantly trying to buy his services. Finally, the Evening Mail formed its own syndicate and paid Goldberg $50,000 a year to keep him.
And it was the invention cartoonists that really appealed to people. His drawings of seeming madmen in their own world coming up with all sorts of lunacies mattered not only because it was cute or funny but because the world was changing so fast in these years with new inventions seemingly revolutionizing the world every year. After all, the telephone, the motion picture, the radio, the automobile, etc., all dramatically transformed the world. So the lunatic inventor might be a creation, but it was close enough to reality to appeal to people. By 1928, the sheer name “Rube Goldberg” was seen as synonymous with this sort of cartoon. The Rube Goldberg Machine is something that is significant enough that nearly everyone has heard of it today, even if they had no idea who Goldberg is.
Let’s return to the Goldberg cartoon Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin.
Does that look like the feeding machine in Chaplin’s Modern Times? Yes, it does. There’s a good reason for that–Goldberg adapted his cartoon into a real thing for that scene! Other of his “inventions” ended up being adapted for film as well, including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and, much later, the Abe Lincoln pancake flipping scene in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
Goldberg also became involved in early animation in the films. He started drawing animation for the movies in 1916. He drew a series of seven cartoons during that year, though this would not be a major interest of his going forward. But he was always interested in trying something new. In fact, he wrote the early Three Stooges film Soup to Nuts, which came out in 1930. By 1938, that included political cartooning. That year, he became the editorial cartoonist for the New York Sun. He became so good at his political cartoons that he won the Pulitzer in 1948 for a work called “Peace Today.” This was indeed a very powerful cartoon you are probably familiar with even if you don’t know Goldberg’s work.
This shows a clear demonstration of Goldberg’s left-leaning politics. World control of atomic energy was on the outs by 1948. But he didn’t care. He was willing to risk his career for it. Other cartoons focused on political corruption, war, taxes, and other controversial issues. His political work was a lot more focused on meta issues than just the headlines of the day. Ah, so much the people who pass for cartoonists should be learning from their ancestor….
In 1949, Goldberg moved to the New York Journal-American and stayed there for the next 14 years until he retired in 1963. Now, Goldberg was 80 at the time of his retirement. So he just hung out at home and rested on his long career, right? Ha ha, no. Instead, he trained himself in sculpture and spent his last year sculpting busts.
Goldberg got to live long enough to not only see his name become synonymous with his unusual cartooning style, but got to see it be transferred to real life. Schools began to hold Rube Goldberg contests to see who could come up with the craziest invention, for instance. He also got to see his influence in board games such as Mouse Trap. Naturally enough, he made a lot of money. He was always about monetizing his ideas. As early as 1909, he had created his own game based on his Foolish Questions cartoon. Luckily he did not live long enough to see that right-wing scumbag hack Antonin Scalia compare liberal decisions on the Court to Goldberg’s machines. I guess that’s the intellectual giant in action……
Goldberg died in 1970. He was 87 years old.
There’s actually a lot more to say about Goldberg, but we will leave it there. He is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Hawthorne, New York.
If you would like this series to visit other cartoonists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Jack Kirby is in Westlake Village, California and William Hanna is in Lake Forest, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.