Who was Rube Goldberg, the man behind those crazy machines?

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What is a Rube Goldberg machine? We've all seen one if not tried to make our own.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a "Rube Goldberg" is defined as "a comically involved, complicated invention, laboriously contrived to perform a simple operation," or "doing something simple in a very complicated way that is not necessary," "accomplishing by complex means what seemingly could be done simply" — a "kind of Rube Goldberg contraption ... with 500 moving parts."

Just this week, "The Amazing Machine," a Rube Goldbergian contraption, made its debut in a holiday video.

But who exactly was Rube Goldberg?

According to a brief biography written by his granddaughter, Jennifer George, Reuben "Rube" Lucius Goldberg (born July 4, 1883) was a Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist, sculptor and author best known for his drawings of absurd, whimsical inventions. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley with an engineering degree, Goldberg began work briefly as an engineer for the city of San Francisco before joining the San Francisco Chronicle where, as an "office boy," he began to submit drawings and cartoons to the editor. He eventually moved to New York, where his career as a syndicated cartoonist took off.

His imagined inventions — "an elaborate set of arms, wheels, gears, handles, cups and rods, put in motion by balls, canary cages, pails, boots, bathtubs, paddles and live animals" — solved simple, mundane tasks that usually didn't need solving: "How to Get the Cotton Out of an Aspirin Bottle," "Self-Operating Napkin" and "Simple Alarm Clock," to name a few.

"Rube did not build the machines he drew," George wrote, "but his cartoons have become an inspiration to aspiring engineers and scientists across the world."

A machine-building contest bearing his name has been around since the 1950s, and Rube Goldberg machines have been featured in movies and on television for decades.

Shortly before his death in 1970, Goldberg sat down for an interview with the Smithsonian in which he explained where his fascination with machines came from:

When I was taking a course in analytic mechanics, the professor had a big machine that each student had to experiment with and get an answer. And you had to find the weight of the earth with this contraption. There was a whole room full of retorts and Bunson burners and beakers and motors. And, uh, I did that, and there was nothing more ridiculous to me than finding the weight of the earth because I didn't care how much the earth weighed. ... I thought this was very useless, you know. I had no idea that this was going to come in handy in my cartoon work later on. I just harken back to this thing and say, 'This is funny.' And that's the way people go to a great extreme to accomplish very little.

Goldberg, though, wasn't the only cartoonist dreaming up improbable inventions during the early 1900s. William Heath Robinson, a British cartoonist illustrator, became known across the pond for his drawings of similarly preposterous contraptions.

And like Goldberg, Robinson is also in the dictionary.

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