As It Happens

Bored? Rube Goldberg's granddaughter wants you to build an elaborate soap machine

Now is the perfect time to build a Rube Goldberg machine, says the legendary cartoonist's granddaughter.

This year's Rube Goldberg Machine challenge is open to anyone, especially those stuck at home

Jennifer George, granddaughter of the late American cartoonist Rube Goldberg, announces the 2020 Bar of Soap Video Challenge on YouTube. (Rube Goldberg Inc./YouTube)


Now is the perfect time to build a Rube Goldberg machine, says the legendary cartoonist's granddaughter.

Popularized by the late American cartoonist's drawings, the machines are comically complex devices that achieve a simple task — such as using a napkin or snapping a photo or mailing a letter — often using an elaborate system of ropes, wheels, pulleys and levers.

"What's interesting about this particularly unique moment in time [is] people aren't trying to rush through things," Goldberg's granddaughter Jennifer George told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"People actually have time to put into these machines."

The goal? Get a bar of soap into your hands

George is the legacy director of Rube Goldberg Inc., which for years has held an annual Rube Goldberg Machine Contest for students across the United States to flex their engineering skills. 

This year's contest was supposed to take place in March, with the goal of building a Rube Goldberg machine that turns off a light switch. The idea, says George, was to raise awareness about energy conservation. 

"Something else happened, COVID-19, and everything was cancelled," she said.

"I was laying in bed one morning right as this happened, and I thought, what is everyone going to do at home with their kids? You know, we need to offer something that could kind of unite the family in a fun and engaging way."

So she decided to re-open the contest — as an international YouTube challenge, open to anyone. 

A Simple Device For Taking Your Own Picture, by Rube Goldberg, from Jan. 21, 1941. (Rube Goldberg Inc. )

The goal is to create a Rube Goldberg machine that, in 10 to 20 steps, drops a bar of soap into someone's hands. 

"It just seemed like the right task. Everyone has got a bar of soap somewhere in their house. And Rube Goldberg machines are made from everyday objects. So you don't have to go shopping. You don't have to buy anything," George said.

"You just have to figure out a fun, sort of interesting way to [take] something you've looked at for years, turn it upside down and see if it has inherent kinetic properties. And hopefully it does."

Rube Goldberg, working on a model, in September 1965. (Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Goldberg is most famous for the elaborate machines he drew, but he never actually built one himself, says George.

"He was prolific as a cartoonist. They estimate that he did about 50,000 drawings in his lifetime, but only really a small section of those are the classic invention cartoons," she said.

"So the fact this is what made him a household name, got him in the dictionary — he is an adjective — I think he was always sort of amazed by that because there was so much else to choose from."

Still, it's a creative legacy that George says she's proud to uphold. And she has some tips on how to make an award-winning Rube Goldberg machine.

First, it has to incorporate everyday household objects. Machines that rely too heavily on marbles and toppling Dominos are not in the spirit of the challenge, she said.

Secondly, build in some drama. That might come in the form of a step that moves really slowly, or the safe incorporation of a family pet.

But the most important thing? "If it makes you smile, if it's funny, that's always good," says George.

But George won't be building a soap-delivering device of her own.

"I'm terrible at building Rube Goldberg machines," she said. "I know when I see a good one, and I know what goes into the best of them, but I am useless — despite my DNA."

Participants can submit YouTube videos of their soap machines in action to Rube Goldberg Inc. any time before May 31, and a winner will be announced in June.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Morgan Passi. Interview produced by Morgan Passi. 


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