Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin (1931). Soup spoon (A) is raised to mouth, pulling string (B) and thereby jerking ladle (C), which throws cracker (D) past toucan (E). Toucan jumps after cracker and perch (F) tilts, upsetting seeds (G) into pail (H). Extra weight in pail pulls cord (I), which opens and ignites lighter (J), setting off skyrocket (K), which causes sickle (L) to cut string (M), allowing pendulum with attached napkin to swing back and forth, thereby wiping chin.

A Rube Goldberg machine, named after American cartoonist Rube Goldberg, is a chain reaction–type machine or contraption intentionally designed to perform a simple task in an indirect and (impractically) overly complicated way. Usually, these machines consist of a series of simple unrelated devices; the action of each triggers the initiation of the next, eventually resulting in achieving a stated goal.

The design of such a "machine" is often presented on paper and would be impossible to implement in actuality. More recently, such machines have been fully constructed for entertainment (for example, a breakfast scene in Pee-wee's Big Adventure) and in Rube Goldberg competitions.


Something for Nothing (1940), a short film featuring Goldberg illustrating the U.S. Patent Office (and its policy regarding perpetual motion machines), and the power efficiency of gasoline

The expression is named after the American cartoonist Rube Goldberg, whose cartoons often depicted devices that performed simple tasks in indirect convoluted ways. The cartoon above is Goldberg's Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin, which was later reprinted in a few book collections, including the postcard book Rube Goldberg's Inventions! and the hardcover Rube Goldberg: Inventions, both compiled by Maynard Frank Wolfe from the Rube Goldberg Archives.[1]

The term "Rube Goldberg" was being used in print to describe elaborate contraptions by 1928,[2] and appeared in the Random House Dictionary of the English Language in 1966 meaning "having a fantastically complicated improvised appearance", or "deviously complex and impractical".[3] Because Rube Goldberg machines are contraptions derived from tinkering with the tools close at hand, parallels have been drawn with evolutionary processes.[4]

Many of Goldberg's ideas were utilized in films and TV shows for the comedic effect of creating such rigamarole for such a simple task, such as the front gate mechanism in The Goonies and the breakfast machine shown in Pee-wee's Big Adventure. In Ernest Goes to Jail, Ernest P. Worrell uses his invention simply to turn his TV on. Other films such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the end credits of Waiting…, Diving into the Money Pit, and Back to the Future have featured Rube Goldberg–style devices as well.

Wallace from Wallace and Gromit creates and uses many such machines for numerous, oft trivial tasks and productivity enhancements (e.g. getting dressed). The inspiration for these contraptions, however, is the British cartoonist W. Heath Robinson.

The Incredible Machine is a series of video games in which players create a series of Rube Goldberg devices. The board game Mouse Trap has been referred to as an early practical example of such a contraption.


Rube Goldberg machine designers participating in a competition in New Mexico

In early 1987, Purdue University in Indiana started the annual National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, organized by the Phi chapter of Theta Tau, a national engineering fraternity. In 2009, the Epsilon chapter of Theta Tau established a similar annual contest at the University of California, Berkeley.

Since around 1997, the kinetic artist Arthur Ganson has been the emcee of the annual "Friday After Thanksgiving" (FAT) competition sponsored by the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Teams of contestants construct elaborate Rube Goldberg style chain-reaction machines on tables arranged around a large gymnasium. Each apparatus is linked by a string to its predecessor and successor machine. The initial string is ceremonially pulled, and the ensuing events are videotaped in closeup, and simultaneously projected on large screens for viewing by the live audience. After the entire cascade of events has finished, prizes are then awarded in various categories and age levels. Videos from several previous years' contests are viewable on the MIT Museum website.[5]

The Chain Reaction Contraption Contest[6] is an annual event hosted at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in which high school teams each build a Rube Goldberg machine to complete some simple task (which changes from year to year) in 20 steps or more (with some additional constraints on size, timing, safety, etc.).

On the TV show Food Network Challenge, competitors in 2011 were once required to create a Rube Goldberg machine out of sugar.[7]

An event called 'Mission Possible'[8] in the Science Olympiad involves students building a Rube Goldberg-like device to perform a certain series of tasks.

The Rube Goldberg company holds an annual Rube Goldberg machine contest.[9]

Similar expressions and artists worldwide

George Rhoads' kinetic art sculptures, such as Archimedean Excogitation (pictured), share many elements with Rube Goldberg machines.

See also


  1. ^ Wolfe, Maynard Frank (2000). Rube Goldberg: Inventions. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0684867249.
  2. ^ Atkinson, J. Brooks (10 February 1928). "THE PLAY; "Rain or Shine," Joe Cook". The New York Times. p. 26. He then introduces the Fuller Construction Orchestra, which is one of those Rube Goldberg crazy mechanical elaborations for passing a modest musical impulse from a buzz.
  3. ^ Marzio, Peter C. (1973). Rube Goldberg: His Life and Work. Harper and Row. p. 118. ISBN 0060128305.
  4. ^ Beeby, Morgan (2019). "Evolution of a family of molecular Rube Goldberg contraptions". PLOS Biology. 17 (8): e3000405. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.3000405. PMC 6711533. PMID 31415567.
  5. ^ "Friday After Thanksgiving: Chain Reaction". MIT Museum [website]. Archived from the original on 2012-11-02. Retrieved 2011-05-06.
  6. ^ "Chain Reaction Contraption Contest". Archived from the original on 2014-12-16. Retrieved 2014-12-13.
  7. ^ "Food Network Challenge: Sugar Inventions". Food Network. Archived from the original on 2015-09-14. Retrieved 2015-09-18.
  8. ^ "Mission Possible". Archived from the original on 2013-12-31. Retrieved 2013-12-30.
  9. ^ "Rube Goldberg – Home of the Official Rube Goldberg Machine Contests". Archived from the original on 2017-12-30. Retrieved 2018-01-11.
  10. ^ Die Weltmaschine des Franz Gsellmann Archived 2017-01-11 at the Wayback Machine. (2010-12-18). Retrieved on 2011-05-06. Franz Gsellmann's world machine
  11. ^ Wallace, Robert (1972) [1966]. The World of Leonardo: 1452–1519. New York: Time-Life Books. p. 108.
  12. ^ Chilvers, Ian; Glaves-Smith, John (2009). A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art. Oxford University Press. p. 603. ISBN 9780199239658. The phrase 'Heath Robinson', used to describe eccentric machinery, had entered the language by the First World War (the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is of 1917).
  13. ^ "Heath Robinson". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 27 March 2024.(subscription required)
  14. ^ "The Great Egg Race". BBC Archive. BBC. Retrieved 27 March 2024.