Monday, June 3, 2013

The First Rube Goldberg Invention Cartoon (1912) -- Two Years Earlier Than We Thought!

In his excellent Rube Goldberg biography, Rube Goldberg: His Life and Work (Harper and Row, 1973), Peter Marzio -- the man who also curated the 1970 Smithsonian Institution's 1970 retrospective of Goldberg's work (which opened just two weeks before Rube's death) -- writes:

"Rube experimented with the 'invention' genre in numerous cartoons after arriving in New York [in 1907], by the first full-fledged model did not appear in the Evening Mail until November 10, 1914." (page 179)

Here's a look at that cartoon, The Best Part of Reducing Is That It Is So Simple  in the context of a full newspaper page (from The Auburn Citizen):

Invention cartoon by Rube Goldberg, November 17, 1914
Widely cited in error as the first Rube Goldberg invention cartoon

Note the date is November 17 -- not November 10, as Marzio cites. It's likely that the cartoon did run in the paper that employed Rube first, and then appeared in various American newspapers after that.

When you look at the ads that ran on the same pages as Rube's "simple" household inventions, you realize that his invention cartoons were originally meant to be gentle lampoons of the advertising of the day. Yet another instance where it seems clear that Rube's work anticipates Harvey Kurtzman and Mad by two generations.

Did you glean that the way for the fat boob to lose weight is to allow a giant bell to be lowered over him, so he can't get to any eats? Pretty screwball idea!

For the last 40 years, everything written about Goldberg that I know of has referenced Marzio's citation of the first invention cartoon -- including me. Imagine my surprise when I trolled through the Library of Congress' archive of newspapers and discovered that Rube drew several "full-fledged" invention cartoons before the one Marzio (and the rest of the world) cites as the official first instance. In fact, as far as I currently know, the first Rube Goldberg  invention cartoon appeared well over two years earlier!

As Brian Walker reminded me recently, all history is revisionist in nature. So -- to revise the record, here's the official first Rube Goldberg invention cartoon, The Simple Mosquito Exterminator - No Home Should Be Without It:

The actual first Rube Goldberg invention cartoon  - July 17, 1912

With its George Herriman blanket, Winsor McCay dream giant mosquito, nutty scheme, and classic pot-bellied boob, Rube's first invention cartoon is a richly comic achievement, in all senses of the word. By the 1930s, Rube was most famous for his wacky inventions, and by the time of his death in 1970, he had created thousands of these.

No knocks on Peter Marzio, who later in life became the distinguished director of Houston's Museum of Fine Arts until his death in 2010. His book on Rube Goldberg changed my life and is filled with amazing information and insights. To research his book, Peter had to dig through musty paper archives in dark backrooms. Forty years later. I can sit at my computer in my home and search through millions of newspaper pages. It's a task that still requires a fair amount of energy (and luck) but I certainly have more resources available to me than researchers did in the pre-Internet era.

You can find a print version of the above cartoon, plus many hundreds of others in the upcoming book from Abrams, The Art of Rube Goldberg (selected by Jennifer George), which I have had the honor to work on as co-editor with Charles Kochman. Look for it in November, 2013!

Till next time,
Paul Tumey

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