A Rube Goldberg machine is a deliberately overengineered apparatus that performs a very simple task in a very indirect and convoluted fashion. Goldberg's drawings, for example, almost always included a live animal which was expected to perform part of the sequence of tasks. The term first appeared in Webster's Third New International Dictionary with the definition, "accomplishing by extremely complex roundabout means what actually or seemingly could be done simply." The expression has been dated as originating in the United States around 1930 to describe Rube Goldberg's illustrations of "absurdly-connected machines".
Since then, the expression's meaning has expanded to denote any form of overly confusing or complicated system. For example, recent news headlines include "Is Rep. Bill Thomas the Rube Goldberg of Legislative Reform?", and "Retirement 'insurance' as a Rube Goldberg machine".
- The expression "Heath Robinson contraption", named after the fantastical comic machinery illustrated by British cartoonist W. Heath Robinson, shares a similar meaning but predates the Rube Goldberg machine, originating in the UK in 1912.
- In France a similar machine is called usine à gaz or Gas factory suggesting a very complicated factory with pipes running everywhere. It is now used mainly among programmers to indicate a complex program, or in journalism to refer to a bewildering law or regulation.
- In Denmark, they are called Storm P maskiner (Storm P machines), after the Danish cartoonist Robert Storm Petersen.
- In Bengal, the humorist and children's author Sukumar Ray in his nonsense poem Abol tabol had a character ('Uncle') with a Rube Goldberg-like machine called 'Uncle's contraption'. This word is used colloquially in Bengali to mean a complex and useless machine.
- In Spain, devices akin to Goldberg's machines are known as Inventos del TBO (tebeo) named after those which cartoonist Ramón Sabatés made up and drew for a section in the TBO magazine, allegedly designed by some Professor Franz from Copenhagen.
- The Norwegian cartoonist and storyteller Kjell Aukrust created a cartoon character named Reodor Felgen who constantly invented complex machinery. Though it was often built out of unlikely parts, it always performed very well. Felgen stars as the inventor of an extremely powerful but overly complex car Il Tempo Gigante in the Ivo Caprino animated puppet-film Flåklypa Grand Prix (1975).
- In Turkey, such devices are known as Zihni Sinir Proceleri, allegedly invented by a certain Prof. Zihni Sinir (Crabby Mind), a curious "scientist" character created by İrfan Sayar in 1977 for the cartoon magazine Gırgır. The cartoonist later went on to open a studio selling actual working implementations of his designs.
- In Japan, they're called "pythagorean devices" or "pythagoras switch". PythagoraSwitch (ピタゴラスイッチ, Pitagora Suicchi) is the name of a TV show featuring such devices.
- Another related phenomenon is the Japanese art of useful but unusable contraptions called chindōgu.
- In the Indian film Apoorva Sagodharargal, the protagonist, a midget circus clown, uses a Rube Goldberg machine made out of circus components to kill a villain.
- In Austria, Franz Gsellmann had built for decades on a machine that he named the " Weltmaschine" (world-machine) it has many similarities to a Rube Goldberg machine.
- Several pieces of Tim Hawkinson contain complex apparatuses that are generally used to make abstract art or other musical devices. Many of them are centered around the randomness of other devices (such as a slot machine) and are dependent on them to create some menial effect.
In early 1987, Purdue University in Indiana started the annual National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, organized by the Phi Chapter of Theta Tau, the National Professional Engineering Fraternity. The contest is sponsored by the Theta Tau Educational Foundation. It features US college and university teams building machines inspired by Rube Goldberg's cartoon. Judging is based on the ability of the machine to complete the tasks specified by the challenge using as many steps as possible without a single failure, while making the machines themselves fitting into certain themes.