Monday, March 22, 2010

Hey Rube!

No, I'm not asking for help, and no, I won't think you're a rube yourself if you've never heard of the famous 20th century cartoonist, Rube Goldberg.  He was pretty well known when I was a kid, but better known to older generations than to us baby boomers.  I don't see any reason to fault folks for when they were born, and for the popular culture references they may or may not get, so much of that is generational.

So, if you want to read up on Rube Goldberg, check out his Wikipedia entry, and the website  And just know that he is best remembered for his cartoons of overly elaborate mechanical devices, machines that took a simple task and accomplished it through the most complex and convoluted means imaginable--and boy, Goldberg's imagination was like nothing else.  I remember learning that his name had become a figure of speech back when I was a kid, and according to Wikipedia, "in 1931 the Merriam–Webster dictionary adopted the word 'Rube Goldberg' as an adjective defined as accomplishing something simple through complex means."

Here's an example for you:

Such Rube Goldberg machines spoke to a particular moment in history, the era of the assembly line (some like to call it Fordist nowadays, but I think that term sounds awful), a time when mechanical and industrial technology had reached its peak, and was about to reverse into the age of electricity and information.  In a sense, then, Rube Goldberg was parodying his times, but also presciently making the machinery that was in the process of becoming obsolescent into an art form.  But that's enough McLuhanizing.

So, as I was saying, when I was a kid we knew about Rube Goldberg more by reputation than current exposure, but we knew very well one particular Rube Goldberg machine (although it was not one that he actually created), the Ideal Toys board game, Mouse Trap.  Here's the original commercial from 1963:

Oh, how I wanted one myself.  But it was not to be, although I did get to play it once or twice at a friend's house.

Anyway, all of this came rushing back to me recently, when the following music video, OK Go - This Too Shall Pass - Rube Goldberg Machine version - Official was brought to my attention:

Here's the description that accompanied the video:
From the new album "Of the Blue Colour of the Sky" available at OK Go on Tour  Directed by James Frost, OK Go and Syyn Labs. Produced by Shirley Moyers. The official video for the recorded version of "This Too Shall Pass" off of the album "Of the Blue Colour of the Sky". The video was filmed in a two story warehouse, in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA. The "machine" was designed and built by the band, along with members of Syyn Labs ( ) over the course of several months.  There is an in-depth behind-the-scenes look at the warehouse here:

That last link,, is worth checking out, as it has a very intriguing, interactive map of the warehouse and machine layout.  The band also has four short "making of" videos on YouTube that are interesting, but not as informative as I would have liked them to be.  But for what it's worth, here they are:

Back in Rube Goldberg's time, specialization reigned, and so art was art, music was music, and machines were machines. Today, in the electronic media environment, the boundaries are blurred, the coolness of artists and musicians blend together with the hot intensity of technologically-minded nerds, and we return to the original, ancient sense of tekne as arts and crafts, music and machinery.

I wonder what old Rube would have made of the internet, though...


Mike Plugh said...

My kids watch a 15-minute program on NHK every morning called "Pitagora Suichi" or "Pythagorean Switch". It even has it's own Wikipedia entry, complete with reference to Rube Goldberg.

The show features several Rube Golberg machines, made of common household/office items, that reveal the show title in the end. The other segments are "ju-pon anime" or "10 stick animation" and an algorithm march that is mighty catchy. Some links:

The Japanese always know how to re-invent the wheel, right?

Lance Strate said...

Or improve upon the wheel! Thanks for sharing that, Mike!