Webster’s defines Rube Goldberg as
“a comically involved, complicated invention, laboriously contrived to perform a simple operation”.
Dictionary.com has two definitions:
1. having a fantastically complicated, improvised appearance: a Rube Goldberg arrangement of flasks and test tubes.
2. deviously complex and impractical: a Rube Goldberg scheme for reducing taxes.
Rube Goldberg, though, is not just a term for a silly invention that performs the simplest task by the most complicated path, Rube Goldberg (1883-1970) was an actual person, one of the 20th century’s more popular cartoonists. It’s not well known but two great cartoonists, Goldberg and Betty Boop creator and animation pioneer Max Fleischer both spent part of their careers working in Detroit making films for the Jam Handy Organization.
The Handy studios made instructional and promotional films, many of them for General Motors, primarily Chevrolet. The promotional films were distributed free of charge to theater operators, who were glad to get free content. This short film is a representative sample of many of those films: make it entertaining and informative and be sure to have something about Chevrolet cars in it. Today the Jam Handy Organization is best known for its parody worthy educational films, shown to three generations of American schoolchildren, but the Handy studio’s bread and butter was its work for GM. It was one of the largest motion picture studios outside of Hollywood and while the Simpsons and MST3K might poke fun, Jam Handy hired very talented people.
In this 1940 film, Something For Nothing, Goldberg takes us through a couple of his “inventions” while explaining the futility of perpetual motion. That sets up an instructional video of how Chevy engineers were working to extract maximum power out of gasoline through novel engine design. Note also that Goldberg makes reference to classified military designs. The US would become a combatant in WWII until the end of 1941 but by 1940 American industry was already switching to military production to arm America and supply the British through the Lend Lease program.