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A Cracked Slate

March 20, 2010
by Adam Mann
an artist's depiction of a Rube Goldberg machine

In search of Rube Goldberg’s Barodik

I tapped my pencil on the wooden desk, waiting in the Bancroft Library’s elegant Reading Room for my materials to arrive. After a few moments, the documents were brought up from storage deep in the building’s belly. I had requested a small collection; seven faded red boxes tied with ribbon, containing the papers of Professor Frederick Slate, head of Berkeley’s Department of Physics in the late 19th century. Here were Slate’s diaries, his laboratory notebooks and letters. Some part of me felt like a creep rummaging through the dead man’s belongings, but I was on a mission of historical import. Turning the musty pages, I began carefully scanning the neat scribblings for any mention of an odd and all-but-forgotten machine called the Barodik.

All contemporary knowledge of the Barodik comes from Slate’s famous pupil, the cartoonist Rube Goldberg ’04. In a reminiscence collected in There Was Light, a book of essays by Cal alumni, Goldberg cited the device as the inspiration for his trademark “inventions”—the preposterously complicated machines he drew up to complete ridiculously simple tasks.

“It filled a good-sized laboratory,” Goldberg wrote of the Barodik, “and its principal function was to record the weight of the Earth by a series of pipes and tubes and wires and chemical containers and springs and odd pieces of weird equipment which made it look like a dumping ground for outmoded dentists’ furnishings.” At the time of his “incarceration in the Barodik cell,” Goldberg continued, he had no idea that the strange machine would furnish him with “one of the principal props of my career as a cartoonist.” But he came to recognize that in his drawings he had merely “broadened the Barodik’s sequence of interlocking elements by adding midgets, kangaroos, rising cakes of yeast, hungry moths, shrinking pajamas, self-dunking doughnuts, animated anchovies, woodpeckers, man-eating trees, water wheels, and coloratura sopranos” to create the contraptions that ultimately would make his name a part of the lexicon.

Although most people would probably dismiss the Barodik as a mere historical footnote, California executive editor Pat Joseph saw the apparatus for what it was: the world’s first real-life Rube Goldberg machine. Joseph hoped to rescue the artifact from obscurity by publishing a photograph or drawing of it in the magazine. His own research had stalled, however, and he passed the task down to me, the eager summer intern. Finding the Barodik became my job.

My first call was to David Farell, University Archivist for the Bancroft Library. Asked for any relevant materials about the Barodik, Farell came back empty-handed but pointed me to Professor Raymond Birge’s History of the Physics Department: 1868–1932. Alas, I could find no descriptions nor any indication of a Barodik-like contrivance in that highly detailed record. Turning to Google, I stumbled on a scholarly paper on Goldberg’s career by historian Matthew Axtell ’98, in which the author noted the influence of the Barodik before confidently declaring that, “no records of this machine exist.”

How could that be? If the Barodik was really the laboratory behemoth Goldberg had described, surely some record of it must have survived. Undeterred, I decided to go directly to the source: Professor Frederick Slate, who, according to Goldberg, was the Barodik’s inventor.

In the late 1800s, Professor Slate was superintendent of Berkeley’s new physical laboratory. Goldberg described him as “a spare little man with a red beard, a high-pitched voice, and an urgent manner of sputtering his scientific declarations.” By all accounts, Slate was an archetypal scientist of the Victorian era: analytical, precise, sober, meticulous, aloof, and known for his contempt of those without high aspiration. He wrote a high school physics textbook, Principles of Mechanics, which Professor Birge’s History claimed to be “as free of factual errors as any elementary text ever written” but “also as uninteresting a text in physics as has ever been written.”

Robert Sibley ’04, a friend and classmate of Rube Goldberg who went on to become executive director of the California Alumni Association, once wrote that Slate was “known to all engineering students as the ‘frozen truth’ because he never smiled.” If Freddy Slate had a sense of humor at all, it appears to have been of an unusually analytical sort. “In his joking,” a eulogist said at Slate’s funeral, “he favored logic and line rather than whimsy and color. Ridicule he never favored, either for himself or others.”

As department head, Slate was tasked with the creation of a three-room physics laboratory in the basement of South Hall. In executing that duty, the stolid professor kept up a correspondence with many French and German manufacturers and filled his lab with every item a budding scientist would need to master the laws of physics. The Regents’ 1877 “Description of Philosophical Apparatus” lists galvonometers, Atwood’s machines, resistance coils, barometers, dynamos, and Melloni’s apparatuses, as well as tools to measure the mechanics of liquids, wave motions, sounds, and optics. There is, however, no Barodik, no reference to any machine of Slate’s own invention, and not a single hint of a device so complex and involved that it might fill an entire laboratory.

Far from being illuminated, the Barodik seemed to be slipping into the void. With each fruitless search, I began to question the authenticity of Goldberg’s memory and to doubt the truth of the Barodik.

Rube Goldberg entered the University in January of 1901 at the behest of his father. Though the Lowell High School graduate hoped to attend art school, his father, a German immigrant, pushed his son to study mining engineering instead. When Goldberg joined Berkeley’s student body, there were 250 freshmen working in six-hour shifts in a single lab room. “I put on a smock and poured multicolored liquids into retorts and test tubes and burned my fingers on Bunsen burners,” the cartoonist recalled. Despite his “unscientific mind,” Goldberg claimed he “took all the scientific courses in stride” and “always seemed to find time for myself in lampooning.”

In the book A California Pilgrimage, Robert Sibley recounted a day in Slate’s Analytic Mechanics class when he and Goldberg watched as their instructor filled two blackboards with “pretty nearly every mathematical symbol ever invented.” Suddenly, young Rube shook his head and said: “Bob, really now, this course is getting too tough and complicated for me. I’ve got to simplify it.” He then set about sketching Slate’s profile on a child’s slate, down the length of which he drew a crack.

“This is a slate,” Goldberg wrote under the drawing. “Is the slate cracked? Yes, the slate is cracked.”

Sibley forgot about his classmate’s artwork until it appeared in the Blue and Gold at year’s end. “When Freddie Slate got hold of that picture,” Sibley wrote, “Rube’s engineering career was cracked, too.” He was thrown out of class.

In the basement of Alumni House there are shelves lined with volumes of the Blue and Gold going back to 1881. Perhaps, I thought, these might be an untapped resource in my search for the Barodik. Dutifully, I combed through the editions spanning Goldberg’s undergraduate career. I didn’t find the cartoon Sibley described, but in the 1904 edition I did find one by Goldberg entitled “A Gentleman of the Faculty.” It shows a rigid professor with more than a passing resemblance to Slate, sitting behind a desk as several timid students try to enter his office. A phonograph on the floor rebuffs them with “I am busy,” “Back to the lab,” and “Crawl back into your shells.”

The old annuals are almost relentlessly satirical, although the humor is often impenetrably arcane. Slate was far from the only target. Another faculty member who garnered his share of ridicule was Samuel Christy, dean of the College of Mining, about whom Goldberg later recalled, “One of his favorite pronouncements was that a wheelbarrow, to get the proper proficiency, had to be held at an angle of thirty-two degrees going uphill. We all feigned rapt interest, which seemed to impress the dean with our great desire to push wheelbarrows uphill for the rest of our lives.” Just as the Barodik inspired Goldberg’s inventions, Professors Christy and Slate are said to be the models for Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, their lab-coated inventor.

In the end, my close scrutiny of the yearbooks paid off. In another cartoon from 1904, next to what appears to be a tree leaning over a bench, I found the words, “The Barodeik, where many a weary mortal sought relief from worldly care.” It is just one element in a cartoon titled “In the Good Old Summer Time” and signed Reuben Goldberg. What any of that has to do with physics remains a mystery, but the new spelling, at least, offered hope.

Back at my computer, I typed the letters b a r o d e i k into Google and hit Return. Eureka! The search engine retrieved half a dozen hits, most pointing to old UC textbooks, including one from 1893 entitled Questions on General Physics in Four Parts, written by Slate’s colleague Professor Harold Whiting. In it, students are asked to “Describe a ‘barodeik’ or graduated baroscope, and explain its action.” A Sophomore Course in Physical Measurements by Berkeley Professor Elmer Drew gives the answer: “The Barodeik is an ordinary balance, having a hermetically sealed flask suspended from one scale-pan, and from the other (as a counterpoise) a glass plate so chose as to have a surface about equal to the exterior surface of the flask. The reading of the balance-pointer on a properly graduated scale gives the density of the surrounding air.”

So the Barodik—or Barodeik—did exist, after all, but it turned out to be little more than a glorified barometer, an “ordinary balance”! It wouldn’t fill a desktop, let alone a room.

Dismayed, I returned to Goldberg’s essay and read again how “each student was allowed six months of experimentation with this forerunner of modern sculpture to determine the weight of the Earth. We all got fairly good marks in this course because the weight of the Earth varies constantly through moisture, barometric pressure, magnetic currents, and other natural forces, so that the answer, give or take a few quadrillion tons, might be correct on any particular day or month.”

It was nonsense, of course. In physical terms, the Earth doesn’t have a weight, only a mass, and it doesn’t take six months of lab work to ascertain this. Just record the time it takes for a ball to drop to the ground, plug the answer into some simple equations, et voilà, you get the mass of the Earth: 5.9742 × 1024 kilograms. There is no need for six months of work or a lab full of instruments.

I had known this all along, but I thought Goldberg was being dumb; that, in his clowning, he had missed an important lesson. Now, suddenly, I realized that I was the dope. I had discovered what the Barodik was, but failed to consider what it represented. By favoring line and logic over whimsy and color, I had missed the joke.

I had, in fact, pulled a Slate.

As California magazine’s summer intern, Adam Mann invented clever section titles, proofread articles, and uncovered plagiarism. He is currently a science writing graduate student at UC Santa Cruz. His work has appeared in the Monterey County Herald, the Darwin Awards, and on
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