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Rube Goldberg and the Art of Serendipitous Discoveries

Kay headshot

I’ll admit it, as a former Mainer, it takes a lot of effort to force myself to go into downtown Philly. However, several weeks ago having white knuckled myself into the train (yes, I’m a wimp), I was walking in Old City. I had just had a thoroughly lovely lunch at FARMICiA (a salad of crab, julienne green apple, lettuces, toasted almonds, mint dressing & avocado mousse. Yum.) and was going down Market Street feeling very pleased with myself…when I suddenly did a double take….The National Museum of American Jewish History has a Rube Goldberg exhibit??!?

Rube Goldberg, 1883-1970, was an American cartoonist. He’s most famous for his cartoons of what later became known as Rube Goldberg machines, which Wikipedia defines as “a machine intentionally designed to perform a simple task in an indirect and overcomplicated fashion.” What Wikipedia doesn’t say is that they’re absolutely hilarious to watch as the tennis ball hits the boot, which kicks a robot toy, who pushes a block off…well, you get the idea. If you’d like to see one in action, I recommend you either watch Ok Go’s fabulous video “This Too Shall Pass” or the Mythbuster’s Holiday Themed Rube Goldberg machine. I knew about Goldberg’s machines, but I didn’t know much about his prior work.

The Library to the rescue! Most people know UDPL has museum passes to check out, but what you may not know is that NMAJH’s pass is digital. You can print it at home…or in my case, whip out your cell phone, go to our museum pass page and see if it is available. It was! 30 seconds later, I was the proud temporary owner of a NMAJH family pass. (You may have to show ID when you present the pass.)

Artwork Copyright Rube Goldberg Inc.

Sojourning to the fifth floor, I entered the exhibit to find an actual usable Rube Goldberg machine, which I promptly tried and then had to chase a ball down the hall as it failed to connect properly. Continuing on to the actual exhibit, I  was treated to a view of Goldberg’s very early work, then the cartoons done during the height of his career, including Mike and Ike & Foolish Questions, and finally his much later political cartoons.

The star of the exhibition, however, were the cartoons about Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, the machine inventor.  This following quote was from one of my favorite works about an automatic device for keeping screen doors closed:

“….push shoe against bowling ball (J) , throwing it into hands of Circus Monkey (K), who is expert bowler. Monkey throws ball at bowling pins painted on screen door thereby closing it with a bang. The monkey is liable to get sore when he discovers that the bowling pins are phoney so it is a good idea to take him to a real bowling alley once in a while just to keep his good will.”

Needless to say, I spent a lot of time in this exhibit giggling! What struck me most about Goldberg’s cartoons is that, unlike most cartoons of the period, his work is still universal and fresh.  So fresh, in fact, I couldn’t resist stopping by the museum store on the way out and getting a very large bag of books about Goldberg, which I then had to haul back to the train station cursing myself the entire way.

So, if you’re in the mood for some culture and giggling, this exhibit is highly recommended! The Art of Rube Goldberg closes on Monday, January 21st. With your library card, check it out today!