A Self-Operating Napkin

May 7, 2012 | By

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If you’ve ever seen a needlessly complicated contraption–take, for instance, that moment in The Goonies where it takes a bowling ball dropped onto a balance, a balloon popping, and a chicken laying an egg to open a door–you know what a Rube Goldberg is.

These devices take their name from the cartoonist Rube Goldberg (1883-1970). He was born in San Francisco, the child of Jewish immigrants. Professionally, he started out as an engineer, designing a significant part of San Francisco’s sewer system. Then he quit in order to draw political cartoons for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Many of his political cartoons triggered a storm of hate mail. His early career was marked by controversy–he attacked Roosevelt and the New Deal; a 1947 cartoon about the dangers of atomic bombs won a Pulitzer Prize.

Later, Goldberg became famous for sketching needlessly complicated contraptions–such as a Self-Operating Napkin (a string attached to a spoon set off a chain reaction that ends with the eater’s face being wiped) and an Automatic Back-Scratcher. These cartoons have been imitated and mocked, and have inspired artists for years–as well as an annual Rube Goldberg Invention Contest, which garners hundreds of entries.

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