Have you ever seen a Rube Goldberg machine in action? If you've watched today's video, then you know what we're talking about. If you haven't watched the video yet, follow this link to see Rube Goldberg's Self-Operating Napkin.

The self-operating napkin is a famous cartoon that sums up what Rube Goldberg machines are all about: creating a machine (or contraption or invention or device or apparatus) that uses a chain reaction to accomplish a very simple task in a very complicated manner. For example, the self-operating napkin accomplishes the simple task of wiping the chin through this convoluted series of events: lifting a soup spoon (A) pulls a string (B) that jerks a ladle (C) that then throws a cracker (D) past a parrot (E). When the parrot jumps for the cracker, its perch (F) tilts and drops seeds (G) into a pail (H). The extra weight in the pail pulls a cord (I) that opens and lights an automatic cigar lighter (J), which sets off a rocket (K) that causes a sickle (L) to cut a string (M) that allows a pendulum with a napkin attached to it to swing back and forth to wipe the chin.

Whew! Did you follow that complicated series of events? Why on Earth would someone invent such a complicated machine to accomplish such a simple task? To answer that question, we must take a closer look at the man who first dreamed up these contraptions: Rube Goldberg.

Reuben Lucius “Rube" Goldberg was born on July 4, 1883, in San Francisco, California. As a teen, he loved to draw and received some basic art instruction when he worked with a sign painter. Rather than pursue a career in art, though, he followed his father's advice and attended the University of California at Berkeley, where he earned his degree in mining engineering.

Mapping out sewer pipes and water mains in San Francisco didn't hold Rube's interest for long, though. He began creating cartoons for local San Francisco papers before moving to New York, where he eventually landed a job as a cartoonist for the Evening Mail.

He used his engineering background to create funny cartoons featuring complicated machines that were described as new inventions to accomplish easy, straightforward tasks through a series of convoluted steps involving chain reactions. The public quickly fell in love with Rube's “inventions."

His work became popular nationwide, as his cartoons were syndicated in hundreds of newspapers across the country. The art world also loved his works, some of which could soon be found displayed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Rube eventually even made it to Hollywood, where his move script “Soup to Nuts" introduced a trio who would soon become famous as the Three Stooges.

In 1931, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary added “Rube Goldberg" as an adjective that meant “accomplishing by complex means what seemingly could be done simply." For Rube, his inventions were a way of seeing the humor in everyday situations, and he loved that his work made people laugh. He once described his cartoon inventions as a “symbol of man's capacity for exerting maximum effort to accomplish minimal results."

Over time, Rube's cartoon inventions leapt off the pages and became real-life working machines, built purely for the joy of engineering and watching science in action. Rube's work has inspired millions to build their own complex machines that use convoluted chain reactions to accomplish any number of simple, mundane tasks.

Today, Rube's work lives on in the form of annual Rube Goldberg machine contests. In 1987, the Phi Chapter of Theta Tau, a national engineering fraternity, at Purdue University in Indiana started the annual National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest.

Each year, groups compete to make the most elaborate, creative contraptions. How complex do they get? Very! For example, a Purdue University team once won the competition with a machine that turned on a flashlight via a 125-step process that included a toy rocket, a simulated meteor, and a mock fire!

Wonder What's Next?

Tomorrow in Wonderopolis you’ll find out why it’s sometimes a good thing to be grounded!