Once upon a time, you could crack open a radio, a telephone, a lawnmower, even a car, take it apart and figure out how it worked. No more. Pretty much everything we use these days comes with computer chips, which you can't really take apart. (I mean, you can, but all you'll find inside are a bunch of 1's and 0's with no obvious logic.) So car mechanics can snap a new chip into an engine, wait till it whirs and watch the gears come to life, but do they know what's going on in there? For most of us, chips are "black boxes." They work, but we don't know why.
Circuit boards can be just as puzzling. Here's one from Randall Munroe, the xkcd cartoonist who loves complexity. But notice that, while explaining its innards, Munroe sticks in an eel, a mouse and some holy water ... because he hasn't the foggiest idea how this thing works...
A hundred years ago, machines were easier. They were built to do one or two things, and they did it simply, with parts that fit snugly together. In fact, the great cartoonist Rube Goldberg made people laugh by taking basic tools and adding complexity, just for the fun of it ...
We all know what an electric fan does. But tying seven of them together to blow dust off a cigar-smoking bum — that's a crazy elaboration, and a whole lot of effort for not much result. Same for this next one ...
The typewriter that doubles as a coffee dispenser is funny, but the deeper joke, says New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, in a new Rube Goldberg book, is that a machine like this doesn't really save time. This gal could probably gulp a cup of coffee just as fast (with no jiggly mess) by herself. And yet, in some wonderful way, a machine is more dramatic. More exciting. That's what Rube Goldberg was really celebrating: He reminds us what it's like to have, as Gopnik puts it, "a soul-deep love" of machinery. In Rube's imagination, the best things in life (and maybe, deep down, everything in life) is deeply mechanical.
I think we've lost a little of that machine-love since Goldberg's day. Take, for example, Google Glass, those new eyeglasses that can record and annotate what you see. For lightness, compactness, and interactivity, they're a marvel, a huge improvement on Rube's clunky "Periscope Eye Glasses," and yet — there's something cool, even remote about these computer-driven, wifi-connected, miniaturized new technologies. You can use them, but you can't know them.
The servers that drive them are hiding in some secret, distant "cloud." In Rube's day, a machine was tangible, divisible. You had to fuss with it to make it work. This guy, for example, has to place a vinyl record onto his backpack Victrola, and then gently add the needle if his movie is going to "talk." He will have to walk very carefully.
What makes a Rube Goldberg machine so charming, so familiar, is that they are so quietly biological. They often require, need, living things to make them tick. For example, here's Rube explaining how to snap your own photograph when the camera is across the room.
You start, he says, by wiggling your big toe, which releases a spring, which powers a hammer which hits a catapult which sends "an Arabian midget" to a trapeze which pulls a cord which spills a "pitcher of syrup" onto a camera bulb which attracts "a hungry fly" who jumps, which lifts a screen, which lets a mouse see some cheese, which makes it leap, which releases a trap, which hits the shutter, which ... SNAP!! ... takes the picture.
Powered By Animal Spirits
Not only is this device rich with living things (a man, an Arabian midget, a fly and a mouse), it is powered by their itches, urges and feelings. The man must wiggle his toe, the fly is hungry, the mouse can't resist the cheese — in Goldberg's imagination, machines are powered by desire — raw, animal spirits. Tools need life. Life powers tools.
Who knows? It may turn out that Goldberg's animalistic machines aren't at all fanciful, but deeply prophetic. And as we enter the dawn of biomechanics, where paralyzed people are taught to "think" their robotic hands into motion, where living cells may one day power computers, we may discover that biology indeed is embedded in machinery, that it's all coming together.
And, of course, the deeper you look into anything (be it the heart of a cell, or the guts of some complicated machine), not only do you find intricacy and beauty, but sometimes you'll also discover something so improbably — so wonderfully — odd, that all you can do is laugh.
But Rube Goldberg knew that too.
Jennifer George's new collection of Rube Goldberg's cartoons, drawings and memorabilia is called The Art of Rube Goldberg. Rube's granddaughter contributes an essay. Adam Gopnik writes the introduction.