• U.S.

The Press: Death of a Master Machinist

3 minute read

Regardless of fame, few people find their names enshrined in Webster’s Dictionary as an adjective for a method or contraption. Rube Goldberg, who died in New York last week of cancer at 87, saw his name entered in Webster’s: a rube goldberg contrivance, says the Third New International edition, accomplishes “by extremely complex roundabout means what actually or seemingly could be done simply.”

Cartoonist Goldberg achieved fame for a series of wildly complicated inventions that today can be seen as a prediction of the world’s foundering in technology. Goldberg’s contraptions used owls and trumpets to nominate people for political office, pistols and crows to feed an infant and rock its cradle. There was even a Hitler-kicking machine that gave the Führer his comeuppance via a cat, a mouse and a stripteaser. Goldberg constructed chains of causality that could be as illogical as life itself. A 1950 cartoon: “Truman (A) plays piano, knocking over bowl containing Amerasia secret papers (B)−fumes (C) overcome Republican Senator (D), who falls back, causing spoon (E) to toss surplus potato (F)−Joe Di-Maggio (G) swings, causing revolving mechanism (H) to set off leftover 4th of July rocket (I) which hits dice box (J), causing it to throw a natural−District Attorney (K) runs to investigate gambling, causing rope (L) to pull shirt (M) off taxpayer’s back!”

Goldberg began to draw at four, and had his only formal art lessons from a San Francisco sign painter when he was twelve. He studied engineering, and in 1904 undertook his first professional task: helping to design San Francisco city sewers. He found that he preferred a job sweeping floors at the Chronicle. “I kept submitting cartoons to them,” he once said, “but when I was cleaning out the wastebaskets in the art department, I’d find my cartoons down there at the bottom. Finally they accepted one of my drawings. I’ve been doodling away ever since.”

The doodles took the forms of Boob McNutt, Mike and Ike and Foolish Questions. By 1922, Goldberg was earning well over $100,000 a year and had been syndicated by McNaught and King Features. In 1948 he won a Pulitzer Prize for a cartoon called Peace Today, warning of the perils of atomic weapons. But politics did not suit him, and though there were flashes of wit, he gave it up.

Good Is Modern. At 80, Goldberg took up sculpture. He approached his new career in a satiric frame of mind. Disgusted with the avantgarde, Goldberg, who was haunted by modernity, wrote recently in Esquire: “Today you buy a bucket of paint and you’re an artist, caress a microphone and you’re a singer, gyrate your crotch and you’re a dancer, take off your clothes and you’re an actor, dump a ton of cement on the floor and you’re a sculptor. Doing your own thing is all right for a genius. But, dear reader, you are not a genius. Neither am I. We need rules to build on. If you do something good today, it is bound to be modern.”

Shortly before he died, Goldberg drew a prophecy of the year 2070. The things it foresaw: Politicians kissing babies and making promises, women demanding equal rights, and fathers misunderstood by their sons.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com