A Rube Goldberg Hand-Washing Contraption? The Race Is On

As if we weren’t already spending enough time washing our hands to keep the coronavirus at bay, the process could get a lot more complicated — and comic — if Jennifer George has her way.

In the spirit of her grandfather Rube Goldberg, the cartoonist renowned for designing absurdly elaborate contraptions to accomplish the simplest tasks (attracting a waiter’s attention, swatting a fly), Ms. George has invited people isolated in their homes to build devices that drop a bar of soap into someone’s hand using a sequence of 10 to 20 steps.

As the legacy director of Rube Goldberg Inc., Ms. George, 60, has been using her grandfather’s cartoons of chain-reaction inventions, which were syndicated for decades in publications nationwide, as the springboard for books, exhibitions and school contests. But the “Rube Goldberg bar of soap video challenge” is the first time she has aimed the competition at a worldwide audience.

“We’ve got to provide some fun, wonderful distraction for families that are at home right now,” Ms. George said. Last month, as schools abruptly closed because of the virus outbreak, she had to cancel the Rube Goldberg Inc. annual contest, now in its 33rd year, in which hundreds of schools from around the United States typically participate in live regional competitions. This year’s challenge for students ages 8 to 18 was to build a machine to turn off a light. “Little did we know we’d be turning off the lights of all things,” she said ruefully.

Her company quickly pivoted to the bar-of-soap competition that is encouraging families around the world to work together. Video submissions, due May 31, should show every step in the homemade chain-reaction machine in a single, unedited pass.

“Rube Goldberg machines are made from everyday objects,” Ms. George said, noting that people need nothing more than the junk they already have in their homes. “You don’t have to look beyond your front door. Anyone can build one.”

The current constraints of shuttered businesses and not being able buy things to make these contraptions has been a boon for the kinetic artist Joseph Herscher. He has been making Rube Goldberg machines professionally since a video of one of his wild inventions went viral a dozen years ago.

“I’m forced to be more creative and really make do with what I have on hand because I can’t just go out to the dollar store to buy objects I normally would buy,” Mr. Herscher said.

All Rube Goldberg contraptions are essentially parodies of a machine, something usually designed to be as efficient as possible. “The inventions really captured the imagination of America,” Ms. George said, adding that her grandfather was riffing off a national craze for mechanization in the early 20th century that promised to make daily life easier.

Goldberg himself never actually built any of these satirical machines. “Because he was trained as an engineer, his invention cartoons would work, but he really wanted to make you laugh,” Ms. George said.

Born in 1883 in San Francisco, Goldberg studied engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. A self-taught draftsman, he moved to New York in 1907 and got a job at The Evening Mail as a sports cartoonist. His first hit with the public was the vaudevillian comic strip “Foolish Questions,” and he began the invention cartoons in 1912. He created an estimated 50,000 cartoons over his five-decade career, including his Pulitzer Prize-winning work “Peace Today” from 1947. It shows a family picnicking outside their idyllic home, which rests atop a giant atomic bomb teetering on the edge of cliff.

“Some of the editorial cartoons are shockingly current,” Ms. George said. Her grandfather, who became a sculptor in the last decade of his life, died in 1970 when she was 11.

Her father was the prolific film and theater producer George W. George, who along with his older brother changed his last name when he went to college to avoid the baggage of the famous and Jewish last name at a time of rising anti-Semitism. He started Rube Goldberg Inc. and the school contests in the late 1980s after learning that rival fraternities at Purdue University, in Indiana, had competed in making Rube Goldberg machines. After her father’s death in 2007, Ms. George — a jewelry and fashion designer raising two children — hesitantly took on the job of steering the company and completing a book contract with Abrams.

“I was very proud of my grandfather, but I really had not paid any attention to his work until the time I was tasked to do the book,” she said. She immersed herself in the 12,000 original drawings that Goldberg had left to his alma mater in Berkeley and the hundreds she had stored under her bed. “The Art of Rube Goldberg,” published in 2013, is in its fourth printing.

The once-reluctant granddaughter is now focused on creative ways of using Rube Goldberg artworks in STEM and STEAM education (as in science, technology, engineering, art and math).

Ms. George worked with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh to develop a hands-on exhibition of chain-reaction machines that opened in 2018 and is headed next to Discovery Cube LA in California after current coronavirus-related restrictions are lifted.

A companion exhibition called “Rube Goldberg Illustrated,” drawing on work in Ms. George’s personal collection, is now being organized by the Pittsburgh institution.

Anne Fullenkamp, a design director at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, thinks the new bar-of-soap contest is a much-needed mood lightener. “It takes something that’s really scary, particularly for kids, and gives them a way to have some control and be problem-solvers,” Ms. Fullenkamp said.

Video submissions are already coming in. Three winning machines will be announced mid-June, and those videos will be posted on the Rube Goldberg website. Every winner will receive a host of branded paraphernalia.

“I have to believe that there’s going to be some good stuff that comes out of the fact that we are spending so much time with our loved ones in isolation,” Ms. George said. “This is a total reset.”

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