Rube Goldberg: The Poet Laureate of Cartoon Physics

Rube Goldberg's Professor Butts demonstrates the "Self-Operating Napkin."

Rube Goldberg's Professor Butts demonstrates the "Self-Operating Napkin."

April is National Poetry Month — and a perfect time to celebrate the poetry of physics!

Poets and physicists and poet-physicists have recognized the lyrical beauty in the laws of motion, force, and energy that govern the known universe — and the late Stephen Hawking was a true giant among them. But I want to give some shine to the genius of a different sort of poetic physicist.

Rube Goldberg

Rube Goldberg

Many of us know Rube Goldberg only as the name of the elaborate machines that Wile E. Coyote used to build in his serially unsuccessful attempts to catch the Roadrunner on the old Looney Tunes animated shorts (btw we could all learn something from Mr. Coyote about resilience and bouncing back from failure — if not exactly learning from it). But the machines actually have a namesake: Reuben Garrett Lucius Goldberg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial and political cartoonist who drew on his early training as an engineer to design overly-complicated machines for achieving the simplest of tasks.

Goldberg began his career as a civil engineer in San Francisco before joining the San Francisco Chronicle to pursue his dream of being a newspaper cartoonist. In addition to drawing the strips Mike and Ike (They Look Alike) and Boob McNutt, Goldberg created the character of Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, whose ridiculously baroque mechanical inventions were depicted in detailed schematics and came to be known as Rube Goldberg Machines.

What I love so much about Rube Goldberg’s inventions is the ingenious way they combine simple machines — inclined planes, pulleys, levers, etc. — to create thrilling and hilarious chain reactions that showcase fundamental physical properties and laws, from gravity to friction to kinetic energy. I think it's why they have such enduring appeal and the unique power to instill an appreciation for physics...

...whether you’re a kid watching cartoons…

...a fan of OK Go’s ambitious stunt videos…

...or Stephen Hawking himself!

Maybe it’s no coincidence that April is when the annual Rube Goldberg Machine Contest is held — and there’s still time to make the April 14 deadline to submit a design for this year’s simple task: to pour a bowl of cereal. So get to work! And if you need some inspiration, here’s a video of last year’s winning team showing off their machine on the Jimmy Kimmel Show.