When it comes to getting things done from a pure efficiency standpoint, the simpler the better. But when it comes to adding a little bit of flair (and internet cred), Rube Goldberg machines rule.
And what, exactly, is a Rube Goldberg machine? While it can be many things, at its heart a Rube Goldberg machine is something that completes a simple task in a complicated way. The machines require a high level of skill and patience to create, and they’re the ultimate expression of doing something just because you can. For the outsider, they’re simply a lot of fun to watch in action.
How Do Rube Goldberg Machines Work?
Rube Goldberg was an American cartoonist who was famous for drawing characters that completed simple tasks in obscenely complicated ways. The most important aspect to making a Rube Goldberg machine work is that tasks are completed in the correct series.
Each action starts another action in succession until the task is complete (which is often done using the six simple machines). For example, a ball rolling down a ramp could complete its action by hitting a block, which in turn is knocked over to hit a weight that falls off of a lever and starts a pulley that rings the door bell. One event leads to another until the task is complete.
What Are the Six Simple Machines?
At the heart of every Rube Goldberg machine are six simple machines.
The Six Simple Machines of Rube Goldberg
- Wheel and axle
- Inclined plane
In real life, as in the cartoons, building a Rube Goldberg machine is a lesson in how to use those six simple machines in various methods.
10 Rube Goldberg Machine Examples
The Page Turner
Part of the brilliance behind The Page Turner by Brooklyn-based artist Joseph Herscher is the fact that it’s set off in a completely natural way. In order to start the chain reaction, Herscher takes a sip of his coffee while he reads the paper. By the time he’s done reading a page, the machine turns it for him.
Honda – The Cog
If someone took apart a car and laid out all of the parts, there’s a good chance you don’t know what each would do unless you’re worked on vehicles before. Putting the parts all back together could end up with something that looks closer to this Rube Goldberg machine by Honda than a functional car.
Ok Go Music Video
When it comes to Rube Goldberg machines, the more over the top the better. And they don’t get much more over the top than this music video by OK Go which features a moving car and a falling piano. OK Go made a name for itself for its music video antics. Sure, the music’s good too, but people are far more likely to remember your band being shot in the face with paint after a convoluted series of intricate machines.
Rube Goldberg Photobooth
As kids we secretly suspected there was really a guy with a camera inside of the photo booth… or an elaborate device like the one in this video. The photograph bookends of the machine are what win us over. It starts with a FujiFilm instant camera, and ends with a traditional DSLR. It’s also a nice touch that they don’t keep the professional quality picture, they keep the instant one, giving it a bit more of a personal touch.
Featured in the documentary Mousetrap to Mars, this Rube Goldberg machine is made up of tons of old toys like an Operation board game, a train set, and tons of other stuff you probably played with as a kid. The design is ridiculously compact, and it’s clear this thing took a lot of work. They’re working in tight quarters, so any wrong movement could have set the machine off, ruining all that hard work. Of all the entries on this list, this one seems most difficult to build.
Rube Goldberg machines take a ridiculously complicated route from A to B, so if you think about it, the creation of the universe is kind of like a massive Rube Goldberg machine. At least, that’s the idea behind this Purdue University Rube Goldberg machine called Time Machine, which illustrates the history of the world from the big bang to the apocalypse. When it was created in 2011, it shattered the record for most steps successfully completed by a machine.
The Christmas Tree Lighter
Turns out the Guinness Book of World Records is a great source for Rube Goldberg Machines. Who would’ve guessed people like building larger and more elaborate pointless machines than anyone else? Case in point, this Christmas tree lighter. While the end is festive, most of the machine stays away from Christmas, opting instead for an intricate mix of marbles, appliances, and power tools.
MineCraft Rube Goldberg Machine
MineCraft is that it’s such a simple game, but people use it to make insanely elaborate things, like this epic Rube Goldberg machine. There’s a lot of flowing water, switches, and lava, and the ending is cathartic for anyone who’s spent a good bit of time in Minecraft’s more challenging modes. Watching a giant creeper explode in effigy feels pretty good.
Melvin the Machine
While it’s generally understood that Rube Goldberg machines are pretty useless, they usually accomplish something in the end, whether it’s turning the page of a newspaper or covering someone in paint. But Melvin the Machine exists only to promote itself.
The Longest Rube Goldberg Machine
In December of 2021, Guinness World Records put up a video of the latest record holder for the longest Rube Goldberg machine. It was built by Chevrolet Menlo, Wang Xiqi, and Guan Jian, and consists of 427 individual steps. No matter how you frame it, anything that takes 427 steps to complete (let alone that many steps to flip the switch on a neon sign).