Can an inventor be an inventor without actually inventing anything?
by Christine Brovelli-O’Brien, STEM Read Content Coordinator
In the charming picture book biography Just Like Rube Goldberg, author Sarah Aronson explores the twists and turns of the life of Reuben Garrett Lucius “Rube” Goldberg, from his childhood dreams of becoming an artist to shoveling underground sewer tunnels to achieving celebrity-level success as a newspaper cartoonist, with a whole lot of other jobs in between.
As Aronson points out, you know you’ve made it in the world when your name is so synonymous with over-complicated chain-reaction machines that it’s included as an adjective in dictionaries around the world!
Highlighting his witty commentary on topics “like sports, and politics, and the silliness of everyday life,” Aronson describes how Goldberg illustrated intricate machines that rely on and often defy the laws of physics but also bring engineering to life.
But despite his keen eye and artistic genius, he never invented a single thing. That’s right: Rube Goldberg, one of the most famous inventors in the world, never actually invented anything.
He was, however, a prolific cartoonist and writer and a Pulitzer Prize winner to boot. And in 1928, after he began publishing his “invention” cartoons, Goldberg introduced a cartoon character, Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts AK, a screwball scientist who invented many (but not all!) of what we now call Rube Goldberg Machines.
Goldberg even brought a version of Professor Butts to the big screen! In his screenplay for the 1930 comedy Soup to Nuts, a movie starring an early ensemble of The Three Stooges (and in which Goldberg himself makes a cameo), the character Mr. Schmidt neglects his costume store because he’s too engrossed with his Rube Goldberg-style machines.
Goldberg’s artistic skills, sense of humor, and engineering training underscore the importance of incorporating art into STEAM studies, and Aronson’s book is a great introduction to classroom activities centered on simple machines: lever, pulley, wheel and axle, inclined plane, wedge, and screw. Goldberg’s “How Do You Turn Off a Light?” is terrific choice for this exercise because it’s relatively straight-forward, and students will get a kick out of the fun components such as the monkey and the jack-in-the-box toy. This invention relies upon several of the simple machines to reach the end goal. Using Robert Neubecker’s detailed illustration, walk students through each labeled step of this machine process and discuss how each action creates a reaction.
Students also can create their own Rube Goldberg machine. Ask them to think about an invention that they think would accomplish a goal and make their life easier (getting dressed for school, brushing their teeth, clearing the table, taking out the garbage). Provide them with paper, pencils, and crayons to draw their own Rube Goldberg style invention to solve this problem, being sure to include some simple machines.
Another fun classroom activity is to play the game Mouse Trap, which was inspired by Goldberg’s inventions. Have students assemble the game according to the instructions, asking them questions about how certain pieces work well together, what their reactions and reactions (cause and effect relationship) is, and how the simple machines work together. If time permits, ask students to play around with the pieces to see if they can construct the game pieces in another workable order to accomplish to same goal of trapping the mouse.
Want to get students moving? Create a Human Rube Goldberg Machine! In the spirit of Rube, Aronson enlisted a group of middle school students to perform “Returning Rube Goldberg to the Library” as a way to embrace Goldberg’s spirit of merriment and creativity.
“You have to have courage to be a creator,” Aronson quotes Goldberg. Just Like Rube Goldberg encourages readers of all ages to find new ways of looking at the world around them, and, just like Goldberg, to use their brains and imagination to create something new – and enjoy the journey along the way.