Charlie Chaplin Gets Strapped into a Dystopian “Rube Goldberg Machine,” a Frightful Commentary on Modern Capitalism

I get into a lot of con­ver­sa­tions these days about how we used to con­sid­er tech­no­log­i­cal progress good by def­i­n­i­tion, but now — despite or maybe because of the far­ther-pro­gressed-than-ever state of our tech­nol­o­gy — we feel a bit wary about it all. We line up for the lat­est smart­phone, but as we do we reflect upon how it increas­ing­ly looks we’ll nev­er line up for the jet­packs, fly­ing cars, and moon colonies we dreamed of in child­hood. We enjoy our phones, but we resent them as well, remem­ber­ing those long-ago assur­ances that tech­nol­o­gy would increase our leisure, not fill it with anx­i­ety about insuf­fi­cient­ly rapid respons­es, nag­ging left­over work, and missed-out-on infor­ma­tion of every kind. When did the trust between our tech and our­selves break down?

Not so recent­ly, it turns out — or rather, not just recent­ly. The human-tech­nol­o­gy rela­tion­ship goes through its good times and its bad patch­es, and at any giv­en time some of us like the direc­tion its progress looks to be mov­ing in more than oth­ers do. You may have heard of one par­tic­u­lar­ly well-known tech­no­log­i­cal crit­ic of the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, a car­toon­ist by the name of Rube Gold­berg. More like­ly, you’ve heard of the pre­pos­ter­ous­ly elab­o­rate machines he drew in his car­toons.

One rep­re­sen­ta­tive exam­ple, an “auto­mat­ic sui­cide device for unlucky stock spec­u­la­tors,” involves the ring of a phone (“prob­a­bly a mes­sage from your bro­ker say­ing you are wiped out”) which wakes up a doz­ing office man­ag­er whose stretch­ing hits a lever which launch­es a toy glid­er which hits a dwarf whose jump­ing up and down in pain works a jack which lifts up a pig to the lev­el of a pota­to, and when he eats the pota­to… well, in any case, the process ends up, some time lat­er, pulling the trig­ger of a gun mount­ed right over the tick­er­tape machine. “If the tele­phone call is not from your bro­ker,” Gold­berg notes, you’ll nev­er find out the mis­take because you’ll be dead any­way.

“The sur­re­al­ism of Goldberg’s car­toon inven­tions,” writes Bren­dan O’Con­nor at The Verge, while meant to enter­tain, “also reveals a dark skep­ti­cism of the era in which they were made. The machines were sym­bols, Gold­berg wrote, of ‘man’s capac­i­ty for exert­ing max­i­mum effort to accom­plish min­i­mal results.’ ” They had a strong appeal in that “era of increas­ing automa­tion, and increas­ing con­cern about automa­tion, exem­pli­fied in Char­lie Chaplin’s 1936 mas­ter­piece Mod­ern Times. One of the film’s dystopi­an curiosi­ties, the Bil­lows Feed­ing Machine, invent­ed by Mr. J. Wid­de­combe Bil­lows, has a dis­tinct­ly Rube Gold­ber­gian qual­i­ty to it — this is like­ly no coin­ci­dence, as Gold­berg and Chap­lin were friends.”

In the clip at the top, we see the Bil­lows Feed­ing Machine in action, not quite ful­fill­ing its promise to “elim­i­nate the lunch hour, increase your pro­duc­tion, and decrease your over­head.” The dis­ap­point­ed high­er-ups ren­der their ver­dict: “It’s no good — it isn’t prac­ti­cal.” A mod­ern-day J. Wid­de­combe Bil­lows would know bet­ter how to respond to them: it’s still in beta.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Falling Water: A Rube Gold­berg Machine That Makes a Fine Cock­tail

Stu­dents Tells the Passover Sto­ry with a Rube Gold­berg Machine

Char­lie Chap­lin Does Cocaine and Saves the Day in Mod­ern Times (1936)

Three Great Films Star­ring Char­lie Chap­lin, the True Icon of Silent Com­e­dy

Dis­cov­er the Cin­e­mat­ic & Comedic Genius of Char­lie Chap­lin with 60+ Free Movies Online

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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