« Earth and Moon Viewer: Stateless Version Posted | Main | Reading List: The Lando Calrissian Adventures »

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Rube Goldberg-Like Burglar Alarm Patent from 1912

Rube Goldberg's talents were broad and profound. After graduating from the University of California in Berkeley with a degree in mining engineering, he worked in the San Francisco Chief Engineer's office before quitting in 1904 to launch his cartooning career drawing sports cartoons for the San Francisco Chronicle for the weekly sum of US$8. He went on to draw more than fifty different comic strips and series of panels, performed in vaudeville in New York, created his own animated cartoons (such a perfectionist was he that he drew every frame himself), wrote short stories and articles which were published in national magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and Collier's, worked on two Hollywood movies and even appeared in Paramount's Artists and Models, and wrote a number of popular songs and a play. In his fifth decade he began drawing editorial cartoons, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948. At the age of eighty, he began a new career as a sculptor, and sold more than three hundred works.

Of all this huge, varied, and celebrated lifework, that most associated with its creator, which landed his name in The Oxford English Dictionary, are the fanciful inventions, where absurdly complicated and improbable machines are devised to accomplish everyday tasks. His first invention cartoon was published in 1914, and they are still being re-published today.

Amazingly, in 1912, two years before Rube Goldberg's first invention cartoon, one Arnold Zukor of New York City obtained United States Patent (1,046,533) for an invention deserving of the as-yet-uncoined term, "Rube Goldbergian". This contraption, composed of a mere 58 parts, is a burglar alarm which, when a masked miscreant attempts to stealthily open the door or window to purloin the purse of a peacefully sleeping victim, sets in motion a multitude of cogs, levers, springs, cams, and other apparatus with the ultimate result of spraying water on the head of the sleeper, so as to awake even those prone to sleep through the noise of a bell or whistle.

The invention was so unique that it fairly zipped through the patent office, being filed on July 22, 1912 and issuing on December 10 of the same year. You can look up this patent on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Web site, but patents issued before 1976 are available only in image form, with the images delivered as very large black and white bitmap scans in TIFF format, which often require fiddling with browser plugins to view, and may display infelicitously on small screens. Since patent documents are in the public domain, I have taken the liberty of creating a Web version of this patent with smoothly scaled grey-scale images suitable for viewing online.

Posted at August 17, 2005 20:48