Home » Physics » Simple machines » Rube Goldberg Machines

Rube Goldberg Machines

Rube Goldberg (1883-1970) was a Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist best known for his zany invention cartoons… Rube Goldberg is the only person ever to be listed in the Merriam Webster Dictionary as an adjective. It’s estimated that he did a staggering 50,000 cartoons in his lifetime.

The “Self-Operating Napkin” is activated when soup spoon (A) is raised to mouth, pulling string (B) and thereby jerking ladle (C), which throws cracker (D) past parrot (E). Parrot jumps after cracker and perch (F) tilts, upsetting seeds (G) into pail (H). Extra weight in pail pulls cord (I), which opens and ignites lighter (J), setting off skyrocket (K), which causes sickle (L) to cut string (M), allowing pendulum with attached napkin to swing back and forth, thereby wiping chin.

 Mouse trap is a Rube Goldberg machine

Marvin Glass and Associates was a toy design and engineering firm based in Chicago. They created some of the most successful toys of the twentieth century such as Mr. Machine, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, Lite Brite, Ants in the Pants, and Mouse Trap… they didn’t pay licensing fees to Rube Goldberg, despite acknowledging being inspired by him. Goldberg later sold licensing rights for his drawings to another toy company, Model Products, but Mouse Trap has become the nation’s most famous example of Rube Goldberg machine.

– adapted from Wikipedia, Mouse Trap(game)

Mousetrap game


This intro is excerpted from a lesson on simple machines, from the Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder. Authors: Michael Bendewald, Malinda Schaefer Zarske, Janet Yowell

Simple and compound machines are designed to make work easier. When we encounter a machine that does not fit this understanding, the so-called machine seems absurd. Through the cartoons of Rube Goldberg, students are engaged in critical thinking about the way his inventions make simple tasks even harder to complete. The study of Rube Goldberg machines can help students evaluate the importance and usefulness of the many machines in the world around them.

One engineering objective is to help people via technological advances. Many of these greater advances in technology can be seen in machines invented by engineers. Rube Goldberg went to school to be an engineer, and after graduating, he decided to become an artist. He drew cartoons of inventions that did simple things in very complicated ways. His inventions involved many complex systems of simple machines, all organized in logical sequences, to accomplish simple tasks.

An important skill for engineers is to evaluate the design of machines for their genuine usefulness for their audiences. Often, the best design is the simplest design.



A Rube Goldberg machine in the Boston Museum of Science, built by Creative Machines

Archimedean Excogitation is a dynamic ball machine sculpture exploring the theme of “a new way of seeing.” The sculpture uses visual and kinetic elements to explore how we see and offers new ways of looking at the world. This machine includes nearly thirty moving or sound-producing devices with two different ball sizes featuring billiard balls in the bottom section and small bowling balls in the top. Rising nearly thirty feet into the air, viewers enjoy the sculpture from the ground as balls and devices dance in front of them and over their heads. People on the nearby stair landing and balcony can also experience a unique view of the top section’s constellation of moving shapes spinning and twirling around the machine. This ball machine was designed by George Rhoads in collaboration with Rock Stream Studios.



Happy Holidays Rube Goldberg


Rube Goldberg: An Inquiry Based STEM approach (PDF)

External links

Official webpage of Rube Goldberg

MythBusters Holiday Special: Building a Rube Goldberg machine (Google Play)

Learning Standards

2016 Massachusetts Science and Technology/Engineering Curriculum Framework

HS-ETS4-5(MA). Explain how a machine converts energy, through mechanical means, to do work. Collect and analyze data to determine the efficiency of simple and complex machines.

HS-PS3-3. Design and evaluate a device that works within given constraints to convert one form of energy into another form of energy.
• Emphasis is on both qualitative and quantitative evaluations of devices.
• Examples of devices could include Rube Goldberg devices, wind turbines, solar cells, solar ovens, and generators.

Appendix VIII Value of Crosscutting Concepts and Nature of Science in Curricula
Cause and Effect: Mechanism and Explanation. Events have causes, sometimes simple, sometimes multifaceted. A major activity of science and engineering is investigating and explaining causal relationships and the mechanisms by which they are mediated. Such mechanisms can then be tested across given contexts and used to predict and explain events in new contexts or design solutions.

College Board Standards for College Success: Science
Standard PS.1 Interactions, Forces and Motion
Changes in the natural and designed world are caused by interactions. Interactions of an object with other objects can be described by forces that can cause a change in motion of one or both interacting objects. Students understand that the term “interaction” is used to describe causality in science: Two objects interact when they act on or influence each other to cause some effect. Students understand that observable objects, changes and events occur in consistent patterns that are comprehensible through careful, systematic investigations.

Next Generation Science Standards: Science – Engineering Design (6-8)
• Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

%d bloggers like this: