RUBE’S PHILOSOPHICAL MACHINES
Ever hear of Thomas Edison? Well, I would hope so, considering he was the greatest American inventor, ever. Ok, how about Henry Ford? If your answer is ‘yes,’ it is no doubt because of his giant automobile plants worldwide, but he, too, was a great inventor, most notably of the ‘assembly line.’ So, how about Rube Goldberg? No? Well, no big surprise. Goldberg was also a great inventor, but not in the same way as the others—he invented what should be called absurd machines, that is, devices that performed the simplest tasks in the most complicated ways, making them commentaries on and critiques of machine technology that, at the time he was making his work, was transforming both the human and natural worlds.
Goldberg’s preferred medium of publication was the cartoon. His work appeared in daily newspapers throughout the U.S., reaching millions of people on a daily or weekly basis, providing them with laughter, to be sure, but also subversively undermining the credibility of new technology that business interests were working hard to sell, literally, to the American masses. His not-so-distant cousin was the Murphy who formulated Laws such as “if something can go wrong, it will.” He was a pessimist in the guise of an optimist, believing, it seems, that his inventions were a boon to humankind and that they could actually work—not so different from his optimistic counterparts in business and industry.
There is one aspect of his inventions that remains in advance of most technological devices today: their integration of the artificial and the natural. In many of his machines singing birds or random gusts of wind work together with levers, pulleys, and clocks to produce a desired effect, mixing chance with mechanical certainty, indeterminacy with predictability. Philosophically speaking, he achieved a higher level of invention well worth striving for today.
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- April 18, 2012 / 2:37 pm
- Lebbeus Woods