One of Rube Goldberg's inventions, from an old comic book. Image: Wikimedia

Inside the Bedroom Workshop of a Rube Goldberg Machine Artist

Joseph Herscher says building his machines is like “taming a wild animal.”

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Mar 17 2016, 2:08pm

One of Rube Goldberg's inventions, from an old comic book. Image: Wikimedia

When I arrived at Joseph Herscher's apartment, I was greeted by a slight young man with a delightful New Zealand accent and a grizzled, one-eyed black pug named Otis. The place looked like any other sunny, well-appointed Brooklyn apartment, with vintage velvet furniture and art nouveau prints on the walls. After offering me a cup of tea in classic Kiwi fashion, Herscher led me straight to his studio, which is also his bedroom.

Like the rest of the apartment, Herscher's studio is fastidiously neat. You would never guess it was the place where Herscher makes his art—complex Rube Goldberg machines that when fully constructed, would dominate the interior of the apartment. The only hint that a mad inventor resides in the space, aside from the workbench, is the rope-and-pulley system Herscher has rigged up so he can open his curtains in the morning without getting out of bed.

"I've been making machines since a was a young lad, six years old," Herscher told me, while I rubbed Otis's belly. "I made my first machine to store candy for me, in a box, which was very practical for a six year old."

Now Herscher builds complex, minutes-long machines that involve more chaotic elements like live animals or fire, and films them in a colorful, narrative setup that elevates the format into a different kind of performative art altogether. Herscher bills himself as a "kinetic artist," but he's a compelling video artist in his own right, racking up over 13 million YouTube views.

Recently, Herscher has begun releasing re-edited clips from his video series called "Jiwi's Machines." The video above, released this morning, focuses on how a machine can feed him breakfast while he studies.

"That one took a lot of trial and error to get the toast to land in my mouth right so I could take a bite," Herscher said. "It needs to slow down as it comes to your mouth... and then go away from you again. It took me a long time to figure out that the perfect way to do that is with a wheel."

If you don't know what a Rube Goldberg machine is by name, you've definitely seen one in action before. Named for the cartoonist who came up with the concept, the basic conceit of a Rube Goldberg machine is to have a complicated network of moving parts performing simple actions, each of which triggers a subsequent action in a domino-like sequence.

It starts with an idea that's usually inspired by an everyday annoyance, like an upcoming machine that's designed to prevent Herscher from having to lick his own stamps (he dislikes the taste). Then it's mostly mechanical intuition and spur-of-the-moment problem-solving, plus trips to the dollar store conveniently located below his apartment.

The machines take weeks or months of trial-and-error, of making minute adjustments and alterations to get weights, trajectories, and angles just right. There's no math involved, just subtle manipulation, and it requires a tremendous amount of patience. "It's kind of like taming a wild animal," Herscher told me. I asked him if he thought a physics genius would have an easier time building such complex chain reactions, and he said no. "The variables are just immense."

Herscher's workbench. Photo: Rachel Pick

Usually, Rube Goldberg machines are designed to perform a ridiculously simple task, and the over-engineering of the machine is part of its humorous, slapstick quality.

In the "Jiwi's Machines" series, Herscher plays a clumsy inventor named Jiwi, whose machines either create or attempt to resolve a chaotic situation, and which continually make life difficult for Jiwi's sister June. Filmed in Herscher's native New Zealand, the series is impressively polished and precise.

Recut clip of "The MacBook Accident" featuring another of Herscher's machines

The slapstick disasters Jiwi unwittingly creates in the series aren't always far off from Herscher's real experiences, which include a time where boiling acetone almost set fire to his last apartment. "I went out and got [a fire extinguisher] the same day," he says. "I now have one in every room."

Despite the cohesive quality of "Jiwi's Machines," it was a video outside that series called "The Page Turner" that caught the attention of The New York Times and Rube Goldberg's own granddaughter, who called Herscher the day after it was featured on the newspaper's website.

"That was pretty exciting," Herscher says. "I was in New Zealand [when she called], about to get on a rollercoaster." She wanted to meet Herscher, so he went to her house in New York and got to look at some of Goldberg's original drawings. "We've actually become really good friends," Herscher told me. "I see her all the time."

As Herscher's YouTube views grew, he began to get job offers to build machines for different companies. It's usually as part of an event or a marketing campaign (like this "Bread Goldberg Machine" built for an Israeli bread company), but he also works with nonprofits and has appeared on Sesame Street.

"What I've figured out," Herscher said, "is that if you can do one thing in the world that no one else is really doing… if it's a really niche, small thing, somehow or another people are going to find you and it's going to be a way to make a living."