The Complex Mind of Rube Goldberg

A look back at the Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist’s 70 year career as recalled by his granddaughter, Jennifer George


Rube Goldberg Views His Work


Try to imagine a world without the Beatles. Now imagine the five decades of musicians that would list them as an influence being erased as well. Regardless of how we feel about their work, there are artists that produce a lifetime of legendary work so essential to our culture that it’s impossible to conceive what other incredible creations would not exist in their absence.


Rube Goldberg was one of those artists that purveyors of pop culture, art, technology, and design have been pulling from for almost a century, even if they were unaware of it. This tradition will continue thanks to Goldberg’s granddaughter, Jennifer George.


George’s book The Art of Rube Goldberg is an amazing collection of Goldberg’s work, along with essays from the people who know his work best. One look through the book and you will immediately see how Goldberg created inspirational fuel for the creative machine for over 100 years. The breakfast machine in Tim Burton’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and the elaborate booby traps in Richard Donner’s The Goonies are obvious examples of his influence, while the cartoon characters created by Hergé in The Adventures of Tintin and Elzie Crisler Segar in Thimble Theatre hold resemblances that are more debatable. An open-minded art lover will even see details of Goldberg’s work in the drawings of artist and activist Keith Haring, whose street art pushed social boundaries.


I was able to ask George a few questions about what her book doesn’t cover and how she is working to ensure Goldberg’s legacy remains immortal. Her responses give us a look into both the past and future of Rube Goldberg and his legacy that continues to inspire us all.



Can you tell us a little about yourself and how your grandfather influenced your work as a designer and writer?


Growing up in a family where a premium was placed on creativity, I had no choice but to follow my impulses, which led me to color and fabric and shape and design, and so I became a clothing designer! I spent the majority of my professional life on 7th Avenue running a company that bore my name and sold to major retailers and boutiques all across the country. There were highlights, like designing Tipper Gore’s inaugural attire for the second administration, designing stage clothing for Bonnie Raitt, and seeing my work in windows of retailers like Saks, Barneys, Bergdorf’s, and Bloomingdales.


Since then, I have been writing, designing jewelry, and making limited edition runs of scarves and blouses. My published work includes a Sunday Op-Ed in the New York Times, that ran January 1, 2011, called “My Family’s Flop,” a recounting of a very public Broadway failure of my parents and a cautionary tale to the creative team of Spiderman. My next published effort was released last year, The Art of Rube Goldberg, published by Abrams ComicArts. Happily, we are in our fourth printing!


My grandfather’s influence on me–and everyone in the family, it seems, from his sons to his grandchildren–was fairly potent. If you weren’t creative–let’s say I had wanted to be an accountant–he would have looked at me like I had 3 heads…which probably would have been a useful thing as an accountant!


That said, I don’t think that someone’s expectations of you make you creative. It’s an impulse, it’s the way you look at the world, and it’s your observational skills–how you take those observations home, and interpret it or express it, becomes your art. I like to think that if I were to meet my grandfather today, he’d be pretty happy seeing the work I do and what I’ve accomplished, both on my own and on his behalf.


R. Goldberg Weekly Invention


Is there a particular period of Rube’s work that you are the most fond of?


Yes–the work that is part and parcel of the first third of his professional life. That’s the period where his hand and line can be seen on every page. He was scripting all of it himself, drawing it all himself, and he knew how to draw funny. I think he was at the height of his creative powers in the late ‘20s, early ‘30s.


You described Rube as having a “punk spirit.” Why?


Rube was not a warm and fuzzy cartoonist. His cartoons were not geared towards children like Walt Disney’s. Rube was snarky, and smart, and his humor poked fun at all aspects of human nature and the modern world. The actual space allotted for his work in the newspaper was his to use in any way he wanted. One day he could have an invention, another day Foolish Questions, another day Mike & Ike (They Look Alike), or The Weekly Meeting of the Tuesday Ladies’ Club. He also didn’t care what people thought of him, which allows for a certain freedom. In my mind, that evokes the punk spirit.



Did you have any revelations during your preparation of the book?


Yes. I had never really read Rube’s cartoons prior to inheriting the mantle of all this from my father seven years ago. He had been the one to sign the deal with Abrams, and the daunting task of putting together the consummate Rube Goldberg book meant I had to do my homework. The sheer volume of work is astonishing. When you consider that Charles Schultz created around 18,000 cartoons in his lifetime and Rube is estimated to have done 50,000…I’m not sure when he slept, ate, or went to the bathroom – not to mention had time for his family and grandkids.


Reading my grandfather’s work as an adult and experiencing him now, I only wish I had had the opportunity to know him better before he died when I was 11. All my memories of my grandfather are filtered through a child’s prism. The real revelation of the whole process was that I finally understood my father’s struggle to carve out his own identity, again in a creative field (not a cartoonist but a writer and producer of theater and film).


The Art of Rube Goldberg via Abrams ComicArts


In No Limp Fish you talked about how your father, George W. George, had trouble dealing with Rube’s shadow. Did you ever struggle with your family’s accomplishments?


No–in fact, I wear it on my sleeve like a badge of honor. I am so proud to come from this genetically odd stock. I also think it’s different when a father and son compete. I just never felt the way he did, being two generations removed.

How were your children introduced to your grandfather’s work?


Well, it’s hard for them to avoid it. His work is all over the house and they’ve watched me consume myself with Rube Goldberg over the last eight years–from growing the competitions (we have thousands of students participating every year across the country and internationally), assembling, writing, and releasing the book, coordinating and consulting on the release of the Rube Goldberg Game app Rube Works (a wonderful multi-platform puzzler that animates Rube’s invention cartoons), to planning Rube’s next few decades. They’re actually kind of sick of their great-grandpa–but fair enough!


Rube Goldberg Color TV


If I read The Art of Rube Goldberg cover to cover, I still won’t know everything about Goldberg. What else should I know?


I could fill another 50 volumes with Rube’s work. To me, that’s what it’s all about. That’s what he left us, and that’s my road map. I’m hoping you’ll get to know more of Rube with new books, images, and–somewhere down the line–a Rube Goldberg movie.


Is there one thing you think Rube would be fascinated by in 2014?

Cell phones. I can see a cartoon of his now with everybody walking, looking down at their devices. I’m not exactly sure what the caption would be, but I’m certain he would observe everyone’s hunched posture was now a part of the modern human condition–and a boon for chiropractor and neck-brace manufacturers.



To see more of Rube’s work, check out his collection available from Great Big Canvas.