A Simple Story of Motion

On the enduring appeal (and frequent misunderstanding) of ''The Way Things Go."



Professor Butts walks in his sleep, strolls through a cactus field in his bare feet, and screams out an idea for a self-operating napkin.

The “Self-Operating Napkin” is activated when soup spoon (A) is raised to mouth, pulling string (B) and thereby jerking ladle (C), which throws cracker (D) past parrot (E). Parrot jumps after cracker and perch (F) tilts, upsetting seeds (G) into pail (H). Extra weight in pail pulls cord (I), which opens and lights automatic cigar lighter (J), setting off skyrocket (K) which causes sickle (L) to cut string (M) and allow pendulum with attached napkin to swing back and forth, thereby wiping chin.”

— from a cartoon by Rube Goldberg

In a 1970 interview with Radio Smithsonian, the inventor, cartoonist, adjective, noun and pronoun Rube Goldberg told the story of how he began drawing the comic contraptions that now bear his name. He had told the story many times before. He was an engineering student and was taking a course in analytic mechanics. The professor had asked his students to calculate the weight of the Earth. In the room was a humungous machine that the students were to use for this task. The whole room, he told the interviewer, was filled with retorts and Bunson burners and beakers and motors. And it suddenly occurred to Rube Goldberg that, after all, what could be more ridiculous than trying to figure out how much the Earth weighed? “I thought this was very useless,” he said. But he thought it was funny, too. “That’s the way people go,” he said. “They go to a great extreme to accomplish very little.”


Thereafter, Rube Goldberg began to have ideas for crazy useless machines and he started to draw them in cartoons. According to the dictionary, something is a “Rube Goldberg” if it “accomplishes by complex means what seemingly could be done simply.” Goldberg’s contraptions were pure satire, surprising combinations of people and things set up in a chain reaction that usually ended in the achievement of some mundane goal, such as the wiping of the chin. Goldberg didn’t design his shaggy dog machines to be built. They were meant to be mental experiments in the absurd. Such as the following:

At 6:30 weight (A) automatically drops on head of dwarf (B), causing him to yell and drop cigar (C), which sets fire to paper (D). Heat from fire angers dwarf’s wife (E). She sharpens potato knife (F) on grindstone (G) which turns wheel (H) causing olive spoon (I) to dip repeatedly into olives. If spoon does not lift an olive in 15 minutes, clock (J) automatically pushes glass-cutter (K) against bottle and takes out a chunk of glass big enough for you to stick your finger in and pull out an olive.

This is not only impractical, it is offensive. Other Rube Goldberg machines reminded you to mail your wife’s letter or turned off the lights or lit your cigar. Ba-dum-bum. Rube Goldbergs were mechanical slapstick. They satirized the promise of technology, and the (American) idea that technology is progress. The causes and effects in a Rube Goldberg are literally progressive, one thing happening upon another thing and another, like collapsing dominoes. At the same time, the contraptions expose human folly, the ways in which we’re persistently falling over ourselves in a forward motion toward a predictably absurd finish. We act and act, and to what end? Let’s remember, Goldberg was saying, there are more effective ways to clean one’s chin and turn off the lights. Rube Goldberg surely would have found much comedy in today’s home computers, these highly sophisticated machines that are mostly used to say “Hi.” Ba-dum-bum. The comedy of the Rube Goldberg is in the mundane ending; that is the punch line. A Rube Goldberg machine wouldn’t be funny if the elaborate game of physics that moved from ladle to cracker to skyrocket to sickle to pendulum came to an extraordinary finale. A Rube Goldberg must conclude in the mundane.

The fact that – almost a hundred years after Goldberg first began drawing them – people across the globe construct functioning Rube Goldbergs might be the funniest punch line of all. Rube Goldbergs now play a prevalent role in our pop culture (the 2010 OK Go video for “This Too Shall Pass” is a particularly magnificent recent example). But over the decades, Rube Goldbergs have changed in one important aspect: the endings have gone. The absurd teleology has disappeared. Rube Goldbergs are no longer technological satire; they are often just imaginative series of cascading events. Over the decades, as the machines transformed from ideas into actions, Rube Goldberg enthusiasts realized they were more enchanted with the simple story of motion.

Recently, the co-creator of what is perhaps the most glorious Rube Goldberg of all died. His name was David Weiss — half of the duo Fischli/Weiss. Fischli/Weiss’ Rube Goldberg has been immortalized in 1987’s beloved art film “The Way Things Go” (“Der Lauf der Dinge”). In a Rube Golbergian way, it could be described like this:

In a warehouse in Switzerland two artists set up a slowly spinning bag of trash that (A) spins over a tire and pushes it, causing it to (B) roll into a weight attached to a board (C) which seesaws backward and pushes the tire further forward into another weight (D) which pushes a ladder forward into a bottle on the edge of a table (E) forcing it to tip over and send the table forward which (F) pushes it along a dolly that (G) bumps over an inflatable raft that

And it goes on, in a 30-minute sequence of science experiment stunts. The stars of “The Way Things Go” are not extraordinary — there are no dwarves or parrots or skyrockets. There are only everyday objects, all choreographed to bump into each other, knock each other over, or light each other on fire. The film might be called “Stuff Falls Over, Stuff Burns.” Yet you couldn’t imagine a more gripping 30 minutes. A balloon slowly deflates to release a cardboard tape roll that falls and initiates a slow chemical reaction that eventually lights a fire that lights a spark. A water balloon is slowly forced through a funnel and waddles to ground to spill a tray of foam. It sounds simple. It is spectacular. Usually, you don’t know what’s going to happen next, but more important, you don’t know where it is going. Even when the artists do show you the broom attached to the chair, you’re never sure what it will do until it does. Often, an object appears to hesitate, as if questioning itself before finally letting go. Watching “The Way Things Go,” you laugh and hold your breath and cheer. The way the chemical reactions and newspaper fires help move tires along the floor is triumphant. How often do we remember how thrilling gravity is? Something happens, and then something else happens…Hooray! “The Way Things Go” is a story of heroism told without heroes. It is an adventure told through junk. Indeed, “The Way Things Go” tells such a strangely compelling narrative that many have insisted it must be a metaphor for something else: The French Revolution, a German professor once posed to the artists. Reincarnation and the transmigration of souls, as a student in China suggested. But no — it is the way things go.

The most common interpretation is that “The Way Things Go” is a celebration of the extraordinariness of the ordinary, a celebration of everydayness, of the way things go. But it’s also about the way we make things go — for better or worse — whether we are creating a work of art or falling down a flight of stairs and landing on a cat or even standing still (“The Artist as Prime Mover” is what Arthur C. Danto called his essay on Fischli/Weiss). The forward motion of life, life as a chain reaction of cause and effect is predictable; it is a cliché. Whatever we do or don’t do, there will be cause and there will be effect. But as David Weiss once said in an interview, “There is something right about clichés.” In other words, there is truth in the predictable. We can predictably learn to make things happen in a way that is predictably successful. Through repetition and work we can finally get the paint can to knock over the ladder. And yet, how that happens, the way it happens, is somewhat more mysterious.

“I’ve always found that astonishing…” David Weiss told Frieze, “the way people always laugh when the next thing falls over.”

“Strangely, for us,” said Peter Fischli, “while we were making the piece, it was funnier when it failed, when it didn’t work. When it worked, that was more about satisfaction.”

“The Way Things Go” does tell a story about the satisfaction of success. Yet this story of success only happens through repeated failure. The trials and errors Fischli/Weiss went through to achieve 30 minutes of uninterrupted achievement are obvious. It is, of course, the possibility of failure that makes watching the falling objects so exciting. Just when you think that second tire can’t possibly be moved by the second bag of trash, even though you’ve seen it work before…. it does! As soon as the goal is achieved, we are ready for the next thing. The success, therefore, is satisfying, but the satisfaction is temporary.

Like many present-day Rube Goldbergs, “The Way Things Go” doesn’t have a real ending. A pail effectively tips into a bowl of what looks like dry ice. The mist froths over the sides of the bowl onto the floor, the camera pans away and there is a slow fadeout to credits. As the credits play, the sound of things going continues. Has it ended? Yes. Will it go on? Of course.

In contrast to the original Rube Goldberg drawings, the punch line doesn’t come at the end anymore. Instead, it’s as if the entire process in “The Way Things Go” is one extended punch line. The punch line to the original Rube Goldberg cartoons seemed to carry a message, which is that we ought to find simpler means to achieve our goals. Modern society gave us many convoluted ways to get what we want but, in the end, we’ll live and die just like we always did. Those, like Fischli/Weiss, who’ve constructed real-world Rube Goldbergs take almost the opposite lesson  — be elaborate, be bold, be crazy, whatever the ending may be. The end is just a sideshow to the maddening, wonderful process of making things go. When engineers, artists, and regular folks took the Rube Goldberg into their own hands and de-emphasized the punch line, the contraptions transformed from satirical gags into wonderful deeds.

It’s possible that Rube Goldberg himself understood the affirmative flipside embedded within his contraptions, knew that the people who merely laughed at the easy Ba-dum-bum were missing the point. A fascinating bit of Rube Goldberg trivia is that he wrote the first Three Stooges movie. The film had the excellent title Rube Goldberg’s Soup to Nuts. The phrase “soup to nuts” is a culinary metaphor meaning from beginning to end. We start a meal with the soup and end with the nuts. But there’s a metaphysics in the phrase, too, one that Rube Goldberg surely adhered to. We start as soup and we’ll end as nuts. What do you do in the meantime?

“They have a big to-do when you’re born,” Rube Goldberg told Radio Smithsonian.

“Father passes out cigars, and that is a big event. And there’s also a big event when you die. Friends, everybody goes, goes to the funeral; they stand around and about you. But those two events are not as important as the thing in between.”

[interviewer laughs]

“The thing in between there is called life, and if you, if you use that, if you use that constructively and for all that it’s worth, then, then I think you’ve got a good life. I don’t think anybody’s continually happy, uh, except idiots, you know.”

8 June 2012

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.