Rube at work: a self-portrait.


Born: 1883 : : : Died: 1970
Job Description: Cartoonist and sculptor
Worked in: Newspaper comics
Noted for: Boob McNutt, editorial cartoons, and incredibly complicated inventions
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Comics have given many now-familiar words and phrases to the English language — "Dagwood sandwich" from Blondie, "goon" and "jeep" from Popeye, "yellow journalism" …

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… from The Yellow Kid, to cite but a few. But only one cartoonist has enriched our linguistic heritage by the donation of his own name. Even people who have never seen the work of Rube Goldberg know what a "Rube Goldberg device" is.

Nor is that the only phrase that contains his name. Not as many people know about The National Cartoonists' Society's Reuben Award. But of those who do, a great majority know who it was named after, and who designed the zany-looking statuette — the NCS's first president, Reuben Lucius Goldberg.

Goldberg was born on the Fourth of July, in 1883. He showed an early interest in cartooning, but like many later-famous artists, was discouraged by his parents, who preferred he prepare for a more practical way of making a living. They figured he could use his drawing ability in a lucrative career in engineering, and to that end, got him enrolled in the University of California's College of Mining. He graduated in 1904 as a full-fledged mining engineer.

Like Gelett Burgess before him, Goldberg did very little with his engineering degree before moving on to his true career. After six months of boredom, he took a job in the art department of The San Francisco Chronicle. At first he mostly tidied the place up (and allegedly, while emptying wastebaskets, figured out what had happened to his own earlier cartoon submissions), but soon became one of the Chronicle's sports cartoonists. He moved to The San Francisco Bulletin in 1905, replacing Thomas A. "Tad" Dorgan (Silk Hat Harry), who had gone to New York to make his fortune. Goldberg followed Dorgan in '07, when he moved to The New York Evening Mail. It was there that he started on the road to fame with his regular feature, Foolish Questions, in which he would suggest silly answers to such annoyingly obvious queries as "Windy, isn't it?" and (said by a hotel clerk) "Do you want a room, sir?" This Goldberg original was echoed decades later in Mad magazine's regular feature, "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions", by Al Jaffee.

It was in 1914 that Goldberg created the series that brought him lasting fame — a series that was inspired by his academic studies. Recalling the so-called "Barodik", an incredibly complex contraption for determining the mass of our planet, cooked up by Goldberg's analytical mechanics instructor, Professor Frederick Slate, Goldberg drew a convoluted and highly improbable "Automatic Weight-Reducing Machine" for the Evening Mail.

Many syndicated features followed, some of which, including Boob McNutt, Lala Palooza and Mike & Ike (They Look Alike), became reasonably well known in their own right — but he continued to create his unlikely engineering stunts for the duration of his cartooning career. They became such a part of American culture, that in 1995, in company with Little Nemo in Slumberland, Barney Google, Li'l Abner and several other immortal newspaper comics, they were commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp. He even, briefly at least, did a soap opera called Doc Wright for a couple of years.

Goldberg became an editorial cartoonist in 1938, when The New York Sun hired him to fill that position (which, by the way, had been vacant at the Sun since 1920). His political cartoons were distributed nationwide by The Bell Syndicate (Mutt & Jeff, Sad Sack). The one he drew for the July 22, 1947 edition, about the world on the brink of nuclear destruction (back when that was a new topic), won a Pulitzer Prize in '48.

By the time he was 80 years old, Goldberg grew tired of cartooning. Instead of retiring, however, he embarked on a new career as a sculptor — and, typically, excelled at it. In fact, it was for his humorous sculpture that, in 1967, he finally won the award named after him.

Rube Goldberg died in 1970, revered by his peers in the cartooning community for his lifetime of extraordinary achievement.


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Text ©2001-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Rube Goldberg estate.