Robinson-Goldberg Machines (RGMs)

A quick-start guide into entering the world of complexifying simple problems

Brief History:

Robinson-Goldberg machines (RGMs), commonly referred to as Rube Goldberg Machines, are man-made machines that take a complex chain reaction style approach to simple tasks. Popularized by W. Heath Robinson in England and Rube Goldberg in the United States in the early 20th century through newspaper cartoons, RGMs have inspired the imagination while providing a satirical criticism of modern technology and its woes. A couple of classic RGMs are pictured below, Robinson's convoluted potato peeler (left) and Goldberg's toothpaste dispenser (right).

The Leading Minds:

As is plain from the cartoons, both artists made humorous and excessively complicated mechanical contraptions to automate simple tasks. Goldberg's cartoons were commonly critical of convoluted government policies, whereas Robinson's drawings often satirized military weaponry and practices. While Goldberg's namesake has gained credit for the contraptions in the U.S., "Heath Robinson" is to this day a common phrase for describing overly complicated solutions in Britain, and "Heath Robinson Contraptions" came into official British dictionary use around 1912.

RGMs Today

Today, both artists' legacies live on with global competitions to create RGMs in addition to recreational RGMs that can be seen on YouTube. Purdue University, thanks to the dedication of the Phi Chapter of Theta Tau, holds the largest intercollegiate competition where every year university teams are challenged to make the most creative, multi-step contraption to automate a simple task such as juicing an orange or shredding paper. Argonne National Laboratory, in association with Theta Tau, has held annual high school competitions since 1995.

In Japan, the contraptions are often referred to as Pythagoras Switch ("Pitagora Suicchi") and are highlighted in a children's television show of the same name.  The show highlights RGMs at the beginning and end of the program that display the show title. The manner in which the Pythagoras Switches are accomplished  showcased a variety of elegant approaches to the task that all incorporate similar household materials.

RGMs also appear frequently in popular culture. Such as in the 1985 film The Goonies where after Chunk does the Truffle Shuffle outside his friend Mikey's house to gain entrance, Mouth sets off a front-yard RGM to enable the front gate to open.

They can also be a children's game , or  Mother Nature's naturally made Wile E. Coyote catastrophe. In fact, Pee Wee's Breakfast machine, along with Rube Goldberg machines in general, are humorously lampooned in Family Guy.




A Changing Landscape:

As different generations and cultures have adapted Robinson-Goldberg machines, often times the end task to be completed gets much less emphasis than the process itself.  Such as the Pythagoras Switches on Japanese TV that use similar household items for every RGM.  Also,  Honda produced an RGM  for a two minute advertising piece where each step in the machine highlighted different features of the automobile while the only point of the contraption was to roll a car down a ramp under a banner that displayed the Honda logo. The main point in these examples is that the objective of the RGM can be of secondary importance to the parameters or focus of the steps themselves. For instance, an RGM competition could ask competitors to create a device that automates a common kitchen task using only items found in a garage.


 Miscellaneous Links:

Mousetrap to Mars:  2007 Documentary about Rube Goldberg Machine Contest at Purdue University

Lovely Egg Smasher

Over the Top Curtain Opener

Gizmodo's Top Ten

Rube Goldberg Inc. Website

This page was written, compiled and edited by Chris Smith-Hill