Rube Goldberg Became Shoveler in 1960s

William Polanchek, representing the California WPCA, presents a certificate of membership in the Select Society of Sanitary Sludge Shovelers to Rube Goldberg of New York City (1967).

by Joe Haworth (as published in the Winter CWEA Bulletin 1996)

That’s right! Members of the Select Society of Sanitary Sludge Shovelers for the California Water Environment Association can proudly proclaim that American icon, Rube Goldberg, is a member and a colleague. Mr. Goldberg, a well known cartoonist famous for gadgets and strange looking machinery, was inducted into the Select Society of Sanitary Sludge Shovelers by none other than Super Shoveler Bill Polanshek. (For those of you too young to know, Bill Polanshek was Bob Barletta’s predecessor for the California 5S.) Interestingly, the induction took place at the Water Pollution Control Federation Conference in New York in 1967.

Many young people today think that Rube Goldberg is simply a name for a wacky machine or series of contrivances to accomplish some multiple tasks. In fact, Rube was a real person and a 5S’er. He was born in San Francisco…

“…in 1883 and graduated with a BS in Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He took art lessons (from a sign painter) while designing San Francisco sewers. Dropping sewers for journalism, this tongue-in-cheek Leonardo da Vinci devoted nearly 60 years to turning out cartoons portraying weirdly imaginative gadgets. Typical was his “Automatic Hitler-Kicking Machine” of World War II. One of his editorial page cartoons for the late New York Sun entitled ‘Peace Today’ won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1947.” (1)

Almost forgotten in ancient history are his cartoon strips “Boob McNutt”, “Mike and Ike” and “Foolish Questions.” The name “Lola Palooza” was one of his originations.

At the induction, Bill Polanshek noted that Rube was married to Irma Seeman (two children). He was the first president of the National Cartoonist Society and has been the honorary president ever since. The Society’s top award is called “The Ruben.” Anyone who has ever seen one of Rube Goldberg’s cartoon devices can’t forget them.

Bill also noted that he would venture to say that this gentleman’s name has, over the years, established itself in our vocabulary and could be thought of as having a place in our personal dictionary. In industry, mechanical or sewer-type fields, we continually devise tools, implements, devices or, as we all call them today, “Rube Goldbergs.” These pieces of wild gadgetry were undoubtedly “inspired by the need and inspiration” instilled in those of us familiar with his cartoons depicting all sort and manner of triggering machines…when a need arises, we stop, think and develop a Rube Goldberg and actually call it that by name. (2)

In his reply to the invitation from Bill Polanshek and Gordon Magnuson, Mr. Goldberg notes, “I feel flattered that you have selected me for an award inspired from my fuzzy minded association with the world of nonsensical gadgetry. With kind personal regards, I am … Rube Goldberg.” (3) Goldberg became a 5-S’er on October 11, 1967.


  1. From the short biography on Rube Goldberg in Forbes magazine of March 15, 1967
  2. From Bill Polanshek’s comments at the induction of Rube Goldberg into the California 5S (New York, October 1967)
  3. From Rube Goldberg’s personal letter to Bill Polanshek of September 18, 1967

Reprinted by permission of FORBES Magazine copyright FORBES Inc. 1967

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