Rube Goldberg machines are named after the legendary cartoonist. They were absurdly complicated machines designed to do something simple, like wipe a diner’s mouth with a napkin or protect a pedestrian from a mugger.
There was an element of satire in Goldberg’s machines, illustrating the human tendency to fight against Occam’s Razor and create the most difficult, rather than the least difficult, way to accomplish a task.
Of course, like Occam’s Razor, Rube Goldberg machines have also often been employed metaphorically, most notoriously by proponents of intelligent design like Michael Behe. Behe claims that many biological processes, such as blood clotting, are “irreducibly complex” like Rube Goldberg machines: remove a single element or step in the chain of reactions and the process will fail; therefore, that process couldn’t have evolved in a stepwise manner.
It’s an argument that’s ludicrous on its face, and is really just a sophisticated restatement of the Argument From Ignorance fallacy: “I can’t figure out how this process evolved, therefore it couldn’t have evolved.”
Most, if not all, of Rube Goldberg’s machines couldn’t exist in the real world, even impractically. The anti-mugger machine linked to above, for example, depended on its user keeping a lit match above his head at all times. However, some versions of similar devices can be built, and their operation are often a delight to observe. I’ve compiled many of them here.
For starters, there’s the tabletop board game Mousetrap, which combines Goldberg’s sense of whimsy with some standard elements of these mechanisms, notably ball bearings and buckets:
Not content to merely play the game, one man decided to rebuild Mousetrap’s mechanism at life size:
I’ve been thinking about the machines lately, and pondering what makes a good one. Avoiding an over-reliance on any one type of element makes the mechanism more fun to watch. You could build a Rube Goldberg machine entirely out of dominos and wheels, for example, but it won’t seem as imaginative as one that mixes it up. The makers of the Honda Accord commercial, “The Cog,” clearly understood this. Their contraption was made from a disassembled Accord, so only uses each type of part once:
The band OK Go probably has the most famous recent machine, seen in their music video for the song “This Too Shall Pass”:
By their very nature, Rube Goldberg machines are very difficult, the result of much trial and error, and very likely to require multiple takes to get right. On thing I like about the OK Go video is that it contains evidence of earlier takes. The final action of the machine is to spatter the members of the band with paint, and when the video begins we see them all covered with this spatter. Also, a television is destroyed by the action, and in the background of the video we see a pile of these destroyed televisions.
The CBS modern-day Sherlock Holmes television series, <I>Elementary,</I> has a Rube Goldberg machine operating during its opening credits:
It’s fun to watch, but loses points with me because we don’t see the complete operation of the machine, and the shots are mostly close-ups, so we can’t be certain it’s really a working machine at all.
These were all the Rube Goldberg machines I knew about offhand. When I began writing this post I asked on Facebook for recommendations for more, and that turned up these gems:
Girl Power Toy Ad:
And my new favorite, “The Page Turner,” which is perfectly in the spirit of Goldberg’s actual comic strips:
“The Page Turner” and many others can be found at this page.
There’s an old computer game for Windows called “The Incredible Machine,” which allowed players to build Rube Goldbergs to accomplish various tasks. It can still be found for sale online. I’d buy it, but I want to preserve what I can of my current productivity.