A Simple Task

Brendan O'Connor in The Verge:

Though in life Rube Goldberg was known to the world as a cartoonist, he was first an engineer. He graduated from UC Berkeley in 1904 and took a job in San Francisco where he worked on the city’s sewer systems. But he didn’t last long. A naturally talented artist, Goldberg became a sports cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicleearning $8 per week.

He moved to New York in 1907; by 1915, his cartoons were nationally syndicated. This was an era in which a syndicated cartoonist could make a healthy living: according to a short profile published by The New York Times in 1963, Goldberg was earning a salary upwards of $50,000 by 1916 — over $1 million by today’s standards.

Over the course of his decades-long career, Goldberg drew cartoons that were variously political and frivolous. He penned three nationally syndicated, weekly comic strips —”Boob McNutt,” “Mike and Ike: They Look Alike,” and “Lala Palooza” — and wrote a single-frame cartoon called “Foolish Questions.” At the peak of his career, he wrote three editorial page cartoons every week, which appeared in 43 newspapers across the country.

Goldberg’s work made him famous: he was named the first president of the National Cartoonists Society in 1946; in 1948, he won the Pulitzer Prize for a political cartoon satirizing nuclear power. (The conservative Goldberg was invited to the White House by Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon.) Goldberg “has won as many trophies as even his most prolific trophy-inventing machine might devise,” reads a short Times profile on the occasion of his 80th birthday. “He takes them seriously but not too seriously, like nearly everything else in life.”

But Goldberg’s engineering studies were not entirely wasted — no cartoons left as indelible an impact on popular culture as his mechanical chain-reaction illustrations. Goldberg drew his cockamamie inventions intermittently from the beginning of his career — he drew the first, “Automatic Weight Reducing Machine,” in 1914, and in 1921 Marcel Duchamp published some of Goldberg’s designs in New York Dada. But the majority of these cartoons come from a bi-weekly series he drew for the magazine Collier’s Weekly from 1929 to 1931 called “The Inventions of Professor Lucifer G. Butts.” Professor Butts (the “G” stood for “Gorgonzola”) was a parody of a Berkeley engineering professor who had once asked his students to design a machine that could weigh the world. Goldberg, one of those students, found this to be a preposterous task.

More here.