1922: Artist Reuben Goldberg

Update: Text that was missing due to Google Books OCR problem has been restored and a new scan of the final page image is also in place.

Yes, the one who became famous as Rube Goldberg! And this is well before he devised his “machines.”

From a 1922 issue of The American Magazine:



RUBE GOLDBERG has more real, sincere friends than any man in New York of whom I know. Because Rube really likes people, likes to meet them, and because he understands them, they love him.

Glance casually at his fantastic, exaggerated cartoons and you might be puzzled, at first, to know whether they are impressionistic illustrations of Bugs Baers’s stories or the by-products of an asylum for crippled minds.

But study his queer, whimsical humor, and you will discover that he has an extremely clear idea of what he is doing; that he is cleverly ridiculing some foolish custom or habit common to all men.

He is a keen student of men and affairs, and is gifted with a genius that enables him to keep his humor kindly. He laughs with us instead of at us.

Goldberg is a serious thinker, and is one of the few cartoonists who can write. His humorous writings are classics; and, again, as in drawing, his humor leaves no sting. Unlike some cartoonists he operates with an X-ray rather than with a lancet, and his victims either feel no hurt, or recover quickly. He has cured millions by the laughter system.

My Answer to the Question: How Did You Put It Over?

The story of how I became a cartoonist; the purpose I have in mind; how I happened to start the “Foolish Questions” series and others which have caught the public fancy; the suggestions which people send in by the thousands; men’s ideas about a joke, and women’s

by Rube Goldberg’


Whenever anyone asks me to tell him the story of my life I have a guilty feeling. We like to satisfy anyone who is interested enough to inquire. So when anyone says: “Now, come on! Be a good fellow and tell us how you got away with it,” and leans forward expectantly, with chin in palm to listen, it is a terrible temptation to give him a story that will please him.

People seem to expect that an artist has led a wild, romantic life, has starved to death a few times, has been hurled out of many boarding-houses and newspaper offices, and has lived in studios with swarms of beautiful models posing for him.

It is rather difficult for one who got a job in New York after being thrown out of only five offices, who never stood, shivering in the snow and gazing in at a window, starving while he watched the man turning flapjacks, to make it interesting.

Perhaps the reason so many persons ask cartoonists how they succeeded is because cartooning looks like the easiest way to make a living. The form of the question varies, but usually it is: “How did you put it over?” Which is all right unless they accent the “you” too vigorously.

The general idea of an artist seems to be that it is necessary for him to wear soiled linen, flowing neckties, long hair, a beard, and to drink a quart of furniture polish and hang by his toes from the chandelier while working. The principal reason so few win success is that they start with the furniture polish and chandelier, and expect some divine inspiration to do their work for them.

Whether you desire to use the story as a self-help lesson, or as a horrible example, here it is. It is an open book anyhow, with a few chapters deleted. Those that are deleted are the ones that are not true, so you lose some wonderful yarns that would add interest. I have heard some about myself that I was almost ready to admit were true, just to add color.

The cruel fact is that I owe much of what success I have won to a sign painter, who taught me the secret of success in art — and in everything else. He taught me to work.

But let us begin a bit before the beginning. The first step a boy should take is to pick out a pair of parents who will encourage him to do the thing he likes best to do. In this I was a tremendous success.

There is no telling where I acquired the love of art. The family has few blots on its escutcheon — that were made by paint, anyhow. But, as far back as I can remember, the big idea was that I should be an artist. Prior to the time I can remember, older members of the family recall diligent efforts at interior and exterior decoration with anything that would make marks upon anything within my reach. I drew on everything, from the walls to the fly leaves of Dad’s favorite books. And at school I did likewise.

I was just eleven years old when a playmate in San Francisco plotted with me to take drawing lessons from a sign painter who agreed to inculcate the rudiments of art at fifty cents a lesson. The sign painter was Charles Beall. He painted signs, but at heart he was an artist. He was painstaking and conscientious; and I think he did almost as much to beautify San Francisco as Adolph Sutro did, for he was not a man who considered his work lightly. He believed in doing good work, even on a sign.

Mr. Beall permitted no slipshod work and no loafing. He taught us that whatever we did was worth doing well. The chum who seduced me into taking drawing lessons was George Wagner, now one of the leading architects of San Francisco. We were very much in earnest. But my parents were not very enthusiastic, either about having an artist in the family, or about permitting an eleven-year-old boy to be out late at night. But they saw I was determined to draw, so they consented to let me try– merely cautioning me to make the trial a thorough one.

It seems to me that this is the wise thing for parents to do. If my own youngsters show signs of wanting to be prize-fighters, I’ll encourage them until they decide for themselves that these early ambitions were wrong. Let them try. If it is a passing fancy, it will pass; if it is a settled determination, the parents cannot cure it.

I was eleven years old when my first picture was exhibited — and for a few weeks I felt as if I would have called Michael Angelo “Mike” if he had been around. It was a pen and ink drawing, a picture of an old violinist, and was shown at the old John Swett grammar school. Then it was hung in the Board of Education rooms to show what the pupils could do — and it now hangs on the walls of my father’s home. Pretty crude work, but he wouldn’t trade it for a Corot.

For three years George and I went to Mr. Beall’s home every Friday evening, without missing a lesson. We drew in pen and ink, charcoal, and pencil; and we painted in water-colors and in oil. Those Friday nights were heaven for me. The rest of the week consisted largely in waiting for Friday night.

I thought we were learning Art (I always thought of it with a capital), and did not realize that we merely were laying a solid foundation upon which to build. It was very serious work. Fact is, I was a very serious sort of kid. No one ever suspected that there was anything humorous about me — except, perhaps, that I was so serious I was funny. My brother, who was sixteen months older than I, was always the one to do stunts and make the others laugh; while I was afraid to speak for fear that, even should I succeed in attracting attention, I never could finish what I started, and thus would lay myself open to ridicule.

It was ridicule I feared above all things. The memory of the suffering and humiliation I felt at that time, if anyone ridiculed me or my work, has made me much more kindly, I hope, in poking fun at others. While I deal largely in ridicule in my pictures I never believed in the brand which hurts. I never have ridiculed the individual.

At that time, when the others were doing funny stunts I used to think of lots funnier ones that I might have done — a minute or two too late to do them even if I’d had the courage. That period, while painful, was valuable. I commenced to study people; sometimes with the intention of imitating them — which I lacked the nerve to carry out. Shy, untalkative persons are usually the best observers. If you do not believe it, talk to some shy fourteen-year-old girl and learn what she has seen and heard while the others were chattering and giggling.

If ever there is a time when a human being needs kind treatment and understanding advice, it is at that age, when a word of criticism or ridicule may curdle his disposition or wreck his career. Even to-day I cannot understand how boys of that age have the nerve to show their work. Sometimes one comes into my office, shows his pictures, explains them unblushingly and tells his plans. At that age, wild with desire as I was, I never would have dared enter a newspaper office, or shown my work to anyone except some confidential chum. I wanted to hide it. And even to-day, after years of newspaper grind, I feel uneasy when anyone looks at an unfinished picture.

All through high school I drew and studied. Practically all my work was in a serious vein — so serious it was funny. Following the wishes of my father, I took a course in engineering at the University of California. He probably figured upon turning my desire to draw into some practical form of employment. I earnestly resolved to reform and to forget art, although many hours were spent in drawing lampoons of the faculty instead of technical drawings.

But there was a change coming over me. The cartooning sense commenced to develop with my college associations; but it was not until my senior year that I won a prize — a trip to the Yosemite — for a poster for the “Blue and Gold.” Also, I filled the junior year book with cartoons of the faculty and other college institutions. I discovered, in drawing these cartoons, that here was a way of expressing the funny things I never had the nerve to say; like a friend of mine, who had stage fright whenever he tried to make a speech, so said it in a movie film.

I was fully determined to forswear drawing and attend to mining engineering; but the first time I looked down the shaft of a mine two thousand feet I knew I was an artist! I might starve — but that was preferable to falling down a shaft. It was a struggle between love and duty — or rather between desire and common sense. Nevertheless, I went to work in the office of the city engineer of San Francisco and remained there three months. But I became so blue and discouraged that all doubt ended. Nothing but art work ever would satisfy me. So I went home one night and said:

“Dad, I can’t stand it any longer; I’m going to quit.”

Fortunately, I had chosen the right sort of father: one who understood. Perhaps he, in boyhood, had been compelled to give up some career he had cherished. Had he objected I never should have had the courage to oppose his wishes, and would perhaps still be drawing a hundred and fifty dollars a month with the privilege of calling the city hall janitors by their first names.

However, my university career was not entirely wasted. I got a job on the San Francisco “Chronicle,” because the city editor, whose son had gone to the”U,” had seen the book in which my drawings appeared. That little experience proves what I have since discovered to be true: that college friendships are the most valuable part of a college career. At least, they last long after everything else gained there is forgotten.

Up to that time my life had been soft. There had been no occasion for me to make a fight for myself; and consequently no one knew whether it was in me to fight. Dad wisely decided to find out. My pay on the “Chronicle” was eight dollars a week, and every time I drew it I felt like a thief; or, rather, what we think a thief must feel like. Who knows? Maybe he doesn’t feel that way at all. I felt guilty because of taking pay for doing something I loved to do. Anyway, the standard of my work was far below that which I had set for myself, and I was ashamed of it. I never have succeeded in reaching a standard — and never shall, although it will always be a pleasure to strive to reach it.

You fellows who have gone hungry and sat on park benches may think my career was an easy one. But no one ever put in a more bitterly discouraging period than my first three months in that art department. The workers were good fellows; but I was a kid, and a rube, and they loved to tease. For three months I drew pictures — and eight dollarses — and not one drawing ever appeared in the paper! They went heartlessly into the waste basket; which perhaps is where they belonged. But imagine the torture to a sensitive boy to see his work thrown away, day after day!

The incident that turned the tide was funny. One of the editors had a son who was running in a track meet at Berkeley. The event was not important, except to the editor’s son and the editor’s son’s father, who ordered the sporting editor to send an artist over to make a picture of the race. The sporting editor did not want to waste a real artist, so he sent me.

The assignment was an event in my life. I spent the morning fixing my drawing board, sharpening pencils, putting in fresh pens, and arranging the desk so as to go to work as soon as I could get back. The paper was measured and ruled; the ink set right. After the meet I dashed back with my sketches. . . . The desk had been cleared. Everything had been stuffed into the drawers, which were nailed tight — and all the artists were gone.

The situation was a desperate one. I could have cried, or fought, or done anything! I knew I was done for; but I determined to take others with me. So I went out, bought hammer and nails, and nailed up every desk drawer in the art department.

The next morning I expected a battle. Instead, that art department welcomed me as a friend and a brother. A kid who had nerve enough to fight back was their idea of the kind of fellow they wanted; and from that day on I “belonged.” The next day my first cartoon appeared. Also, my father took me for a long walk in the park and gave me a lecture — impersonal, of course — upon a curious disease known as swelled head, warning me of the symptoms. As a matter of fact, there was a depression rather than a swelling. I knew my work was rotten, no matter what others said. I had learned just enough art to understand that.

Half the failures I have known have been failures because of that disease. Dad warned me at the danger point — which is right at the start. The majority fail because they imagine they have arrived, when they are just starting. They fail to realize that when their work is accepted it is the beginning of harder and harder work; that it is not sufficient to maintain a standard; one must improve upon it, or else one will slip back. There is no such thing as stranding still.

My first real chance came when Tad Dorgan left the San Francisco “Bulletin” to go east. I made such a pest of myself asking for the position that they gave it to me in self-defense. I learned two lessons at once: first, the difficulty any man has in succeeding a popular worker; and, second, that individuality is the thing that counts.

The paper devoted a great deal of attention to sports. So they gave me the chance to draw fight pictures, and asked me to write something — to explain what they were, probably. One of my secret ambitions, which I never had dared confess, was to learn to write — which I never had attempted. Now I commenced to write in the vein of the pictures; a sort of mild, semi-sarcastic ridicule, not of individuals but of situations and action.

The stuff was different and the readers liked it for that reason. I went around among strangers, listening to get their ideas of the stories and pictures. I enjoyed writing. There have been times when I hesitated as to whether to draw or to write, but always finding that drawing has the bigger pull at my heart.

Then the New York bug bit me. I had worked on the “Bulletin” a year, and had read all that stuff about New York recognizing talent and sending for it. I waited a year for the call to come from New York. Then I concluded that Mahomet was a wise guy when he packed and went to the mountain.

The theory that a young fellow with ambition should stay at home until New York sends for him is all right for those who prefer their home towns. But in my line New York is the big market. My advice to a young man with ambition, who knows that the big field in his particular line is New York, is to run right down, tackle New York, and give it a battle. If you have the goods to sell, go to market with them. If they are goods that are wanted, they will find a buyer.

I know what tough times hundreds of thousands of fellows have had breaking into New York, even though my own entree was easy. Also, I know a lot of fellows who have made good. It is a hard place to break in, because the competition is fierce — but if you win, the reward is proportionately great.

I had money enough to keep me from sitting on park benches. I was twenty-three. You fellows who are twenty-three now understand how terribly old that is. Age was creeping over me and I didn’t dare to wait; perhaps fearing New York would move, or that I would be doddering before I could reach it.

So I went to New York. That’s all there is to it: not even a decent story of hardship and final triumph. Fact is, the only time I have been hungry in New York was when I worked so hard I forgot to eat. Only five editors tossed me out; and twelve days after landing on Manhattan Island, the “Evening Mail” gave me a job. The next day I learned that the Sixth Avenue Elevated wasn’t the Brooklyn Bridge.

New York has a peculiar sense of humor. Things strike the public of that city as funny which other cities are slow to accept. It is not that New Yorkers are different, or are smarter, or quicker to see a thing, but that they are constantly on the lookout for something new — and they can drop a thing even more quickly than they can take it up.

Also, it is harder to find any one thing that will appeal to the entire population. In San Francisco, which is considerable of a city, I knew the people and their tastes — perhaps instinctively, being one of them; but New York is so tremendous, and has such a diversity of population and of tastes, that it is impossible to know all, or to appeal to all. One must try for the largest class, or the largest number of classes with the same tastes. In my first efforts on the “Mail” I floundered, feeling for the reaction from the public.

I was not satisfied with my work. I believed that the public did not like it. And so, for the first time, it became rather hard to work, except when I did it simply for the love of drawing. I knew I was not getting ahead.

One evening a bunch of my friends, who were rooting for me sincerely, made a suggestion: they argued that I would stand a much better chance if I changed my name. They almost persuaded me that Americans are so narrow-minded that they are prejudiced against certain names indicative of nationality. Their insinuation was that, while I might be all right personally, my name was a bad trademark. “Goldberg” did not sound as musical as “Davenport,” or “Tenniel.” I admitted that “mountain of gold” — the meaning of my name — might not exactly describe my financial condition, but I insisted that it was a perfectly good name. Besides, it was my father’s name; and he was the one person without whose sympathetic understanding I never would have dared attempt to realize my ambition. I lay awake all night, trying to picture myself named O’Sullivan, or Bridgewater, or something like that. Then I realized that it was idiotic even to consider such a thing; that I would be ashamed of it all the remainder of my life; and that, if a man’s achievements are no bigger than the sound of his name, it doesn’t much matter what his name may be.

Instead of deciding to use a now. de plume I determined to try to add a little to the honor my father and mother had brought to the name. Whether this decision anything to do with it or not, work immediately’ became easier and my resolve to succeed greater.

All that time I had worked with rather a vague idea, but the theory was slowly working out. My plan was to pick out some shortcoming common to the majority of mortals, and to avoid making cartoons offensively personal. Everyone loves to laugh at the weaknesses of others, and we all laugh more heartily when we realize that we share the weakness. If we had a monopoly on the weakness we would feel hurt. For instance, if you fall into a mud puddle and are laughed at, you feel hurt. If your entire crowd falls into the puddle, you stand and laugh at one another and at yourself. I never have been guilty of cartooning any physical or mental shortcoming in anyone. The mental defective and the physical cripple are not subjects for humor.

The first thing I did that attracted real attention was “Foolish Questions” — and that was an accident.

One day I was drawing a picture merely to fill in a blank space in the daily cartoon. It was a grotesque picture of a man who had just fallen out of the window of’ a fifty-story building and a woman, who was inquiring, sympathetically, “Are you hurt?” He was replying: “No, I am taking my beauty sleep.’

Everyone realizes that, in the effort to make conversation, we ask inane, idiotic questions, without expecting an answer. So the idea was not at all new. But by supplying an answer equally as idiotic as the question was, I gave it a new twist. But, when I drew the picture, I didn’t think much about it, beyond knowing that it filled the required space.

The next day letters commenced to pour into the office and the telephone rang continuously. It seemed to me that everyone in New York was anxious to suggest other foolish questions. And it slowly dawned upon my mind that I had found the thing for which I had been seeking. “Foolish Questions” proved to be the most successful series I ever evolved. It became part of my daily work for years, and it still strikes the public as funny.

One never can tell what the public will fancy. It is a sort of guessing match. “Selling” a cartoon idea to the public is a lot harder than one would think. A striking catch line, or slogan, or “punch” phrase, may catch the public fancy — or it may not. One does not have to wait long to find out; because if a phrase catches on — as, for instance, some of Tad Dorgan’s have — one hears it repeated a thousand times within the next few days. But even at that, it is harder to hold the public attention than it is to gain it.

I have studied, and watched and listened, usually getting ideas from everyday things that happen all around us. The majority of the ideas have come from my own experiences. One of the most popular catch lines I ever used was “I never thought of that.” The idea came one day when I was sitting at my desk, trying vainly to remember the telephone number of a friend I had promised to call up. An office boy came in, found me holding the telephone and mumbling numbers, striving to recall the right combination.

“Why don’t you look in the ‘phone book?” he asked.

“I never thought of that!” I exclaimed.

Then I laughed at my own foolishness — and realized that every man and woman in the world does just such things in fits of absent-mindedness. So I started the series.

It is an odd thing that it is so hard to hit upon an idea, and so easy to find a million examples of the same thing the minute it is started. One often wonders how he failed to think of it years before. Probably two thousand persons wrote or telephoned instances of “I never thought of that” — after they saw the idea in cartoons.

From the very first I realized that in order to succeed, it was necessary to know human beings, whether one draws for them, or sells to them, or works for them. Cartooning is ninety parts studying human beings, eight parts fitting the resulting knowledge to an idea, and two parts drawing.

Most of my cartoon ideas have come from personal observation and experience. I have had thousands of ideas suggested to me, but hardly one of them struck me as applicable to my own work. It may be that they were funny to the persons who suggested them; and it is possible they would have worked out in their hands — but not in mine.

Hardly a day passes without someone suggesting an idea or ideas, for cartoons; but most of the things suggested are crude. Usually they are things which are funny only to a limited circle.

A cartoonist hardly need read the papers to know what the big news of the day is, because the suggestions for cartoons will inform him. A year ago the great majority of suggestions [obscured] booze and Henry Ford — neither of which seem funny to me.

In studying human beings I took an extensive post-graduate course in human nature around New York. For years I circulated where the lights were brightest and the crowds thickest. It got so that the hat boys wanted to give me reduced rates. But all the time, I had an uneasy feeling that I was missing something; I could not just figure out what it was. That is, not until one day, when I made the discovery that I hadn’t even started to learn about life. . . . That was when I met Her! There are four of us now. The other two are boys; and I suppose that in a year or two I’ll be spanking them for drawing on the wall paper and urging them to study engineering, or something useful.


Wikipedia: Rube Goldberg
Wikipedia: Rube Goldberg Machine
Rube Goldberg

Original page images, click to enlarge:






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