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The Art of Rube Goldberg

“An artist who followed the logic of the machine to its comic climax.”

Among history’s people who became nouns is American cartoonist Rube Goldberg (July 4, 1883 – December 7, 1970), legendary inventor of the eponymous chain reaction machines that now bear the status of pop culture tropes. But like a number of other celebrated creators with lesser-known talents in a medium other than what they are primarily known for, Goldberg was also a prolific humorist, political cartoonist, sculptor, writer, and illustrator. In the lavish coffee-table tome The Art of Rube Goldberg: (A) Inventive (B) Cartoon (C) Genius (public library), writer and designer Jennifer George, Goldberg’s granddaughter, cracks open the treasure chest of her grandfather’s diverse creative contributions, ranging from his first published drawings in his high school newspaper to his Pulitzer-Prize-winning political cartoons, by way of his iconic machines, his nearly fifty-thousand cartoons published in daily newspapers, his sculptures, and his advertising work. Alongside the 700 color illustrations are never-before-revealed memorabilia, letters, patents, and other ephemera, as well as contextualizing essays by notable comics historians, that capture the spirit and singular mind of this extraordinary mid-century Renaissance man.

In the introductory essay, cleverly titled “The Goldberg Variations,” The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik writes:

Two very different pillars mark the edges of the Goldbergian experience. On the one hand, his work delights children, and always will, with the excess and overcharge of his inventions — the simple thing done with absurd yet plausible complexity. on the other, there seems, to adult eyes, to be in his work some fatal, almost unconscious, commentary on the madness of science and the insanity of modern invention.


Yet much of the additional charm of Goldberg’s machines, more than might be apparent on initial inspection, rises from their observational precision, their period detail, their lovely inventory of a now-vanished time — one that saw itself as perfectly modern but now looks, inevitably, touchingly past.

Among Goldberg’s best creations was his weekly comic strip, “The Inventions of Professor Lucifer G. Butts, A.K.,” which ran exclusively in Collier’s magazine between 1929 and 1931.

At its most engaging, the Goldberg machine, just as its comic-strip counterpart, is an interactive wonderbox of show-and-tell, embodied storytelling that pulls you in as you pull on its tabs and levers. And though Goldberg, whom Gopnik describes as “an artist who followed the logic of the machine to its comic climax,” famously said of his inventions that they exercised “man’s capacity for exerting maximum effort to accomplish minimum results,” surely beneath this self-deprecation he must have known — taken pride in, appreciated — that the ultimate result was maximum wonder, even as Goldberg devised elaborate ways of accomplishing the simplest of tasks, from cooling a plate of soup to opening a bottle of wine. More than that, his ultimate message was that process is infinitely more interesting than product — a notion that has taken even greater cultural decline since his day, as we plow ahead in the era of personal productivity at the expense of presence.

Goldberg, indeed, was a cartoonist at heart — and with that came the necessary faculty of snark and parodic cultural commentary. Alongside the whimsy of his machines and the humor of his drawings was a darker narrative about the dangers of mechanization and the perilous automation of even the simplest human actions. What is the line, he implicitly asked, between becoming fascinated by machines and becoming machines? Goldberg was also a keen observer of the human condition, his elaborate chain reactions for accomplishing simple tasks speaking to our shared tendency to do things the hard way.

Like Dr. Seuss, Goldberg produced a number of political cartoons and PSAs:

Of those, he said:

A political cartoon is a pictorial metaphor. You must take a drawing that is like the thought you want to express. And this drawing must not be merely an illustration but a symbol or group of symbols.

Two decades after Alex Steinweiss pioneered the album cover and a generation before R. Crumb brought comics to it, Goldberg’s cartoons appeared on records, such as this 1959 Play-Tonics album:

Goldberg created one of his earliest drawings, “The Old Violinist,” in 1895, with detail and artistic precision remarkable for a twelve-year-old boy:

He even illustrated for kids — here’s a page from his 1946 children’s book, Music in the Zoo:

While The Art of Rube Goldberg: (A) Inventive (B) Cartoon (C) Genius is an absolute treat from cover to cover, one of the book’s most charming touches is the cover itself, which houses a miniature pull-tab-operated Rube Goldberg machine based on Goldberg’s 1939 Side Show cartoon, “Simple Ways to Get Fresh Orange Juice Upon Awakening.” It is the nature of our modern mechanization that the screen robs this analog masterpiece of all its whimsy, but I’ve adapted it into an animated GIF nonetheless, to give even a tiny taste of the real thing:

Images courtesy of Abrams ComicArts © Heirs of Rube Goldberg; animated GIF by Maria Popova


Hemingway on Not Writing for Free and How to Run a First-Rate Publication

Find the best writers, pay them to write, and avoid typos at all costs.

Recent discussions of why writing for free commodifies creative work reminded me of an old letter Ernest Hemingway sent to his friends Ernest Walsh and Ethel Moorhead when they were about to launch This Quarter — the influential experimental Paris-based literary journal that would go on to publish work by such greats as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Kay Boyle, William Carlos Williams, Marcel Duchamp, Rainer Maria Rilke, Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, and Hemingway himself over the course of its run between 1925 and 1932.

Dated January 7, 1925 and found in The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 2, 1923–1925 (public library) — the impressive sequel to the first volume, which also gave us young Papa’s thoughts on how New York can drive you to insanity — the letter rings with remarkable prescience in today’s publishing microcosm where major publications expect writers to work for free in exchange for “exposure.” The result, unsurprisingly, is mediocre writing at best — not because good writing is motivated by money, but because nothing demotivates a writer more than feeling like her writing is vacant filler for pages meant not to delight or enrich the reader but to sell advertising.

Hemingway counsels Walsh and Moorhead:

One of the most important things I believe is to get the very best work that people are doing so you do not make the mistake the Double Dealer and such magazine made of printing 2nd rate stuff by 1st rate writers.

I see by your prospectus that you are paying for [manuscripts] on acceptance and think that is the absolute secret of getting the first rate stuff. It is not a question of competing with the big money advertizing magazines but of giving the artist a definite return for his work. For his best work can never get into the purely commercially run magazines anyway but he will always hold on to it hoping to get something for it and will only give away stuff that has no value to any magazine or review.

Before closing the letter, he adds a timeless admonition that, despite his own meta-violation, stands all the timelier in today’s age of rapid-fire publishing:

And watch proof reading and typography — there is nothing can spoil a persons appreciation of good stuff like typographical errors.

The Letters of Ernest Hemingway is full of such evergreen wisdom from one of the most celebrated writers in modern history. Complement it with Hemingway on how to become a good writer and his pithy Nobel Prize acceptance speech, then revisit the collected advice of great writers.


A Ghost of Evolution: The Curious Case of the Avocado, Which Should Be Extinct But Still Exists

“Even after thirteen thousand years, avocado is clueless that the great mammals are gone.”

In any market economy, it’s common sense that as soon as the consumer for a certain product ceases to exist, the product itself becomes moot and soon vanishes from stores. In nature, however — or market ecology, if you will — that need not necessarily be the case. In the altogether fascinating The Ghosts of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, and Other Ecological Anachronisms (public library), popular science writer and evolutionary biology champion Connie Barlow builds on the work of renowned ecologists Dan Janzen and Paul Martin, who in 1982 published a provocative paper arguing that many of the fruits and nuts found in Central American forests today evolved to be eaten by animals that have been extinct for thousands of years. Barlow explores the curious anachronistic existence of these species, ranging from papayas to persimmons to ginkgo biloba, and even coffee.

But as an avid aficionado of the avocado, I was especially taken with its particular story: Since fruits propagate by seeds, their progeny doesn’t grow far from the tree, as the proverb goes; their only chance of spreading their seeds across the land, then, are the animals who eat the fruit, along with its seeds, then “plant” those elsewhere when they poop. The avocado’s abnormally giant seed presents anything from a severe digestive hazard to a death sentence for contemporary earthly species but, apparently, avocados coevolved with ground sloths and were originally eaten by gomphothere — elephant-like creatures that lived during the Miocene and Pliocene, between 12 million and 1.6 million years ago, who happily reaped the fruit with their hefty trunks, crunched them with their massive teeth, and passed the seeds comfortably through their oversized digestive tract.

Relic of a ghost: An avocado fruit and seed paired with the tooth of its missing partner in evolution, the gomothophere Cuvieronius.

The problem, of course, is that gomphothere no longer roam the Earth — and yet avocados still exist. Barlow writes:

Avocado’s strategy for propagation made a great deal of sense throughout the long life of its lineage — until the present moment. Even after thirteen thousand years, avocado is clueless that the great mammals are gone. For the avocado, gomphothere and ground sloths are still real possibilities. Pulp thieves like us reap the benefits. Homo Sapiens will continue to mold the traits of the few species of genus Persea it prefers. Ultimately, however, wild breeds will devolve less grandiose fruits, or else follow their animal partners into extinction.

In this fascinating short video for PBS, Joe Hanson of It’s Okay To Be Smart explains the avocado’s curious fate, along with those of its brethren of ecological anachronism:

Read more about this time warp of evolutionary biology in Barlow’s The Ghosts of Evolution.

HT The Dish


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