Rube Goldberg machines: from OK Go to the Times Square bomb

A young boy playing the Mouse Trap game, set up on the floor

Rube Goldberg, whose contraptions are known as Rube Goldberg Machines, has inspired the Mouse Trap game, the rock band OK Go and the Times Square bomber. Flicker photo.

Rube Goldberg has become one of the hottest topics on the web in a way that would make the late artist and inventor Rube Goldberg proud. Rube Goldberg became a sensation all the way back in the 1930s, creating complex machines using chain reactions to perform simple tasks. He’s a household name again, at least for today. It started Monday after James M. Cavanaugh, a former bomb expert with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, was quoted in the New York Times as saying “I call this a Rube Goldberg contraption.” Cavanaugh was describing a bomb in an SUV left at New York’s Times Square. The bomb was a dud, but the botched terrorist act ignited an explosion of media coverage.

OK Go video: Rube Goldberg extreme

Rube Goldberg reemerged in pop culture about a month before the Times Square bomb dominated headlines around the world. Earlier this year, OK Go, a rock band from Chicago, became an internet sensation with a short term loan of Rube Goldberg ideas. The OK Go video is based on a Rube Goldberg machine. For the OK Go video “This Too Shall Pass,” producers created a Rube Goldberg machine in a warehouse that triggered a continuous chain-reaction nearly four minutes long that ultimately shoots the band members in the face with paint. The blog reports that up to 60 people worked a month and a half to design and build the Rube Goldberg machine. More than 30 people worked to reset the machine after each take.

Times Square bomb a ‘Rube Goldberg contraption’

The Rube Goldberg inspiration for Cavanaugh’s description of the Times Square bomb comes from the bomb’s design and materials. The Rube Goldberg contraption consisted of  two alarm clocks and some batteries on the floor of the rear seat. A canister of firecrackers sat between two 5-gallon plastic gas cans on the rear seat. Three propane containers with firecrackers attached were in the back, along with a gun locker inside a cardboard box holding eight bags of fertilizer, that the perpetrator apparently didn’t realize were non-explosive.

“It’s the ‘swing-the-arm-with-the-shoe-that-hits-the-ball-and-knocks-over-a-stick-that-knocks-something-off-a-shelf,’ ” Cavanaugh told the New York Times.“And it is all supposed to work.”

Rube Goldberg legacy

Rube Goldberg, who lived from 1883 to 1970 may have influenced the lives of most people today with Mouse Trap, a hugely popular game from Ideal that debuted in 1963. Rube Goldberg first started creating this characteristic chain reaction of events in his political cartoons during the 1930s. Now wherever and whenever such a whimsical chain reaction is devised in real life or on paper it is referred to as a Rube Goldberg machine. His grandchildren now run a company called RGI (Rube Goldberg Incorporated) to maintain the Goldberg name.

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