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In conversation with Jennifer George, Legacy Director at Rube Goldberg Institute for Innovation & Creativity
Jennifer, you’re Rube Goldberg’s granddaughter, and Legacy Director at Rube Goldberg Institute for Innovation & Creativity. Let’s come back to that shortly… For those that don’t know his work, Rube himself was a cartoonist. How would you describe the kind of cartoons for which he’s best known?
The drawings that define Rube’s career were his invention drawings… These were drawn in the form of patent applications, but they imagined solutions to everyday problems in the most overwrought and comical way possible.
Overwrought and comical; right! So a Rube Goldberg Machine, strictly speaking, is a CARTOON of a comical, highly complex invention that performs a simple task… Could some of the machines in the original cartoons actually be built, in theory?
Well… Rube was trained at U Cal Berkeley as an engineer, then – after a brief stint working in that capacity – he realised that his true calling was cartooning. Because of that training, though, his inventions would work… As long as you had enough time and space to build them – and the cooperation of anthropomorphic animals, of course!
Ah, yes! Could we really get a monkey to squeeze a bar of soap on cue?!
But then, the real purpose of the cartoons is to make you laugh at the machines, at ourselves… And how we tend to overcomplicate things in an attempt to simplify them.
And today, of course, the cartoons are the tip of the iceberg… Nowadays, people – including me – really do revel in building this kind of ludicrous machine! Why is that? What’s the appeal, do you think?
I think – as technology marches forward – we’ve become detached from how things work. As the gizmos, gadgets, and problemsolving and tim- saving devices we rely on become more and more incomprehensible, there’s nostalgic comfort in watching a working Rube Goldberg Machine. One thing leads to another. And… Result!
Yes… There’s something strangely compelling in seeing one go, even when you know it’s going to work.
They’re endlessly entertaining. And you can see lots of them now, thanks to the advent of social-media platforms like YouTube… YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram have propelled Rube Goldberg into the digital age. Just search Rube Goldberg Machine and you’ll get millions of results.
It must be very strange, Jennifer, to see some of these machines and know your family’s inspired them… How do you feel when you watch one go? Does the novelty ever wear off?!
The novelty never wears off! Every few months, another Rube Goldberg Machine makes headlines. And we’re inundated with emails. The latest is the opening sequence for the TV show Bad Sisters… Have you seen it?
I’ve not seen the show; I’ve seen the machine. It starts with the glass eye of a stuffed badger… Which isn’t a sentence I ever thought I’d say!
Ha! True! Perhaps the North Star in the pantheon of viral Rube Goldberg Machines is OK-GO’s viral music video, which has 70-million views and counting. But I’m most emotionally moved by what I see at our live Rube Goldberg Machine Contests®, when kids work together towards a common goal as they let their imaginations fly. At these events, I can often be found in a corner crying somewhere, unable to talk, clutching a hanky, trying to compose myself. I think my grandfather would be gobsmacked by the impact and enduring legacy of his work.
“I think my grandfather would be gobsmacked by the impact and enduring legacy of his work.”
I’m glad you mentioned the contests; tell me about those… What’s the idea?
Every year since 1988, there’s been an official Rube Goldberg Machine Contest®. It began as a college-level competition where teams compete to build the craziest contraption to accomplish the same simple task – like Zip a Zipper, Water a Plant, or Open a Book. Over the years, the contest has grown and morphed, and we now offer a wide variety of annual competitions for all ages.
And these aren’t just drawing challenges, are they; they’re real-life builds?
Yes; we invite builders to create real-life, working machines and enter the contest by filming and submitting an invention on our website. This year’s official 2023 task is to ‘Build a Lunchables’, or – for our international builders – ‘Build a Lunch’… It’s sponsored by a Lunchables®, the iconic food and snack brand. We’re accepting rolling submissions on our website from now until March 23rd.
Phenomenal! And I guess this sort of thing is a dream for schools because these machines are STEM and STEAM all the way… But they don’t necessarily feel like STEM or STEAM! So building one would be very educational…
Educational and, most of all, fun! And we have other contest options, too… The Rube Goldberg Minecraft Challenge, The Cartoon Contest – great for art teachers and their students – and our live, in-person Rube-A-Thon… A one-day building event for lower-, middle- and high-school students. If your readers are interested, they can find more information on all of our free Rube Goldberg Machine Contests on the website…
Oh, never mind the readers… Tell me the address!
Ha! It’s rubegoldberg.org!
Fantastic! So… Correct me if I’m wrong: Rube passed in 1970, aged 87. He was the most famous newspaper cartoonist in the world, had his name in the dictionary, and he’d endorsed products including cigarettes and cough drops! You now manage his work as Legacy Director… Do you also think of it as a brand, though?
It’s funny, as a creative person in my own right – I spent the bulk of my career as a fashion designer – I consider the work I do at The Rube Goldberg Institute the most creative endeavour of my lifetime. I am building a brand, yes… If Walt Disney represents a cartoon mouse, Rube Goldberg represents a real one. Also, my grandfather’s estate is divided into two distinct organisations…
The Rube Goldberg Institute is our non-profit arm. Our mission is to provide free STEM and Art Education programs to historically under-served communities and young people. The Institute’s funding comes from corporate donors, foundations and contest sponsors, in addition to income from the for-profit arm of Rube Goldberg… That part includes publishing, entertainment, museum, experiential and consumer products. And I don’t know if it’s a question you were going to ask me, but I’m occasionally asked where we’ll be 10 years from now – and I like to think we’ll be waiting in line for the Rube Goldberg rollercoaster!
That would be WONDERFUL! I meant to ask earlier, though: the board game Mouse Trap is often used as an example of the Goldberg spirit, if not his work… If I recall correctly, Rube had no direct involvement with it…
Not directly, but it was clearly based on his work. According to my father, there was a legal settlement in the 1960s with regard to Mouse Trap. And rather than a royalty, my grandfather chose a $5,000 lump sum settlement from Ideal, the toy company that created the game.
“Mouse Trap has sold more than 65-million units since its release… I’m not sure he chose the right deal!”
Oh! Is that right?!
Considering that Mouse Trap has sold more than 65-million units since its release, though, I’m not sure he chose the right deal from Ideal!
There seems to be some confusion, though, as to whether or not he licensed anything to the game company for the follow up titles… Crazy Clock and Fish Bait. Can you shed any light on that?
As for Crazy Clock and Fish Bait, I have no idea.
Interesting. Crazy Clock and Fish Bait vanished comparatively quickly… I think maybe Ideal nailed it the first time with Mouse Trap! Having said that, how much potential is there still to be explored in this area, do you think?
With regard to toys, there were – in my grandfather’s lifetime – model kits that you can still find on eBay periodically. Several years ago, there was a Rube Goldberg Spin Master collaboration of toy kits that were sold primarily through Target. They too are still available online. My experience with Rube and toy kits, though, has been very specific…
In what way?
In that they’ve all been modelled to perform a simple, specific task. I hope that the next Rube Goldberg product we release is more open ended so that you can build the machine you imagine… Not one that’s been imagined for you.
Oh, I see. Yes. Yes, interesting…
Also, we’re currently having great success with the Rube Goldberg Speed Build Bag® that we produce ourselves and sell via rubegoldberg.org. The bag presents a Rube activity for 5-15 builders… Just gather a bunch of random junk, put it on a table and add the contents of the Speed Build Bag – and you have everything you need to make a working Rube Goldberg Machine!
Oh my GOD! I have to have one! And – I can’t hide my excitement – are they specifically task driven?
Yes, there are two tasks in each bag. First is ‘Pop a Balloon’. Second is ‘Trap a Mouse’ – but you can also create your own, of course. The items are reusable and the bag expands to provide room for built components. One day, I hope a manufacturer wants to partner with us on this… It’s becoming a bit challenging keeping up with demand and doing it all in-house!
Well, we have a lot of toy-company readers so they can easily reach out about it! Now… A few years ago, I discovered an app called Rube Works. This turns some iconic Rube cartoons into problem solving puzzles. It’s TERRIFIC…
Thank you! We think Rube Works is wonderful too!
My question is: what other kinds of Rube Goldberg products have you explored in the past?
In the education space, the Institute partners with Minecraft and – thanks to the North America Scholastic Esports Federation – we run an annual competition that challenges builders to create Rube Goldberg Machines in the digital space of Minecraft.
We’re also working with the talented folks at Epic Games, the maker of Fortnight, and have created a Rube Goldberg Learning Kit that uses Unreal Engine’s software to teach kids digital animation, graphics and coding. That launches in February… There’ll also be a series of mini-challenges leading up to an Unreal Engine competition in the Fall of 2023. There’s also an AR version of Rube Works in the works!
“We’re open to any creative take on our IP that brings Rube Goldberg into the marketplace.”
Brilliant! It sounds like you’ve got a lot of great projects; what an interesting brand… And are there any areas of licensing that you feel you’d still like to explore with the right partner?
Yes! We’re open to any creative take on our IP that brings Rube Goldberg into the marketplace. For all inquiries about licensing, please contact Ross Misher at Brand Central. Is it okay to give out his email address?
It is with me!
Thank you! People can reach out via firstname.lastname@example.org…
Super. Tell me then, Jennifer, in what other ways does the brand live on?
I inherited the responsibility of managing my grandfather’s estate in 2007. During my tenure, we’ve established the Rube Goldberg Institute. As I mentioned, that’s the not-for-profit organisation that stands as a museum without walls… It offers 21st Century experiences that span the virtual and the physical and introduces visitors of all ages to the rewards of engaging in the arts and sciences. But Rube’s legacy – cemented by the work we do at the Institute – is reinforced by pop culture and the hundreds of millions of online posts and searches for Rube Goldberg.
Quite right. Looking beyond Rube’s best-remembered work, Jennifer, he drew thousands of cartoons – political and otherwise. How much of that gets celebrated?
Well, Rube did an estimated 50,000 cartoons over the course of his lifetime. There were dailies, full-colour Sunday pages, editorial and advertising work. I think hardcore Rube fans are familiar with the breadth of his work, but for the most part, the main item on Rube’s smorgasbord table is the invention cartoons. For an overview of all aspects of his work, fans can take a look at the gallery on our website.
And I hesitate to ask because it’s too obvious a question… Do you have a favourite cartoon?
I do… In fact, I have a few. And they’re not what you’d think! One is from a series called ‘People Who Put You to Sleep’. It’s of an aspiring young writer, reading her most recent work to her family… And all of them are asleep on couches, chairs and so on as she yammers on and on. It’s a favourite because I come from a family of writers – including Rube – and it always makes me laugh!
Another is a random cartoon that shows a couch completely covered in pillows as a wife explains the charm of throw-pillows to her bewildered husband. I’m a pillow person, so again I find this hilarious. But perhaps my favourite of all is my grandfather’s wedding cartoon in which Cupid has hooked him on a fishing line and is reeling him away from his drawing table into a padded cell where he imagines my grandmother waiting for him. There’s a wonderful thought-bubble photograph of her — apparently he could never quite capture her in pen and ink the way he saw her. It’s the only cartoon of his that I know of which includes a photograph as part of the illustration.
That’s interesting… Sometimes, I suppose – and in the best possible way – an artist’s preferred medium doesn’t do a subject justice. So, Jennifer! We need to start wrapping this up but there are a couple of things I simply must ask!
Well… Again, you must get asked this all the time – do YOU ever build Rube Goldberg machines yourself?!
Yes. And I’m terrible at it! But to be fair, my grandfather couldn’t build them either… I remember attempting to build one of his model toy kits with him and being surprised that Rube Goldberg couldn’t build a Rube Goldberg Machine.
Ha! That’s a wonderful thought! Ha!
At this point, though, I’ve seen enough machines to know that I’m good at giving advice… So my contribution always comes from a visual perspective, and how to make the machine look beautiful and compelling. I leave the mechanics of the machine to those whose minds work in that way. My best advice to builders is that gravity is your friend and patience a virtue.
Gravity is your friend. Patience is a virtue. Nice quote! Print that on a tee-shirt with a logo; I’ll have one! Finally, then: what’s the one question it would have been lovely for me to have asked today that I didn’t?
Rube Goldberg is very popular in places like Japan, Korea and Israel – why do you think there’s a universal appeal?
Which would’ve been an excellent question! What’s the answer?
No matter where you live, or what language you speak, Rube Goldberg is one language that everyone understands. At the end of the day, we’re all human and no matter how vastly different our cultures are, certain things are universal. Music. Art. Love. Food. Even Rube Goldberg Machines.
Agreed! And you know, part of me wants to analyse why that might be… Because a Rube Goldberg Machine is science at its most playful, I suppose. But you know what? It’s probably best left a beautiful mystery for me! Jennifer George: thank you so much.
You are so welcome!
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