The Absurd Genius of Joseph's Machines

The Absurd Genius of Joseph's Machines

Joseph Herscher builds absurd Rube-Goldberg machines for life’s most mundane tasks. His tools? Scotch tape, paperclips, rubberbands, glue, hamsters, soup cans, hand axes … you get the point. The machines are a hodgepodge of nonsense consisting of items scrounged from a dollar store or junk lying around that might have, what he calls, “kinetic potential.” And the machines are genius.

So far his creations have appeared in multiple places from LEGO Technic ads to Jimmy Kimmel Live and Sesame Street and have racked up millions of views across YouTube and Instagram. “These inventions won’t improve your life,” he says. Well, at least not in a physical sense. The New Zealand native, who studied mathematics and computer science, is all about surprises, making viewers wonder what his chain-reaction machines will do next.

To give you an idea, here’s a few of the contraptions in his recent “Pass the Wine” video (embedded below):

  • A hammer hits the belly of a rubber chicken launching a rubber ball from its mouth
  • A mouse, after riding a toy train, scurries towards a cartoonish slice of cheese, setting off a pool ball, setting off a large wheel of cheese
  • A cinderblock smashes a wine glass; a ballerina in a wind-up music box releases a ping-pong ball
  • A reciprocating saw buzzes through a loaf of bread, the slice then dominoes onto a line of foam squares as the saw continues to cut through the table.

But that’s only a fraction of the complexity. Art of Play chatted with Herscher to learn more about his frenzied, wondrous mayhem.

How’d you get into this?

I used to be a software developer, but then, one day, in my spare time, I began building a Rube Goldberg machine because I was inspired by these other videos on YouTube. And I got really into it. Every day I would come home from work and spend four hours building it. Seven months later, I had this enormous machine that made me a cup of tea. I filmed it, put it on YouTube, and it got a million views. I realized, “Oh, maybe this could be my new job.”

What’s the most dangerous video you’ve made?

I just made one where I have to duck before a wine bottle on a pendulum swings at my head. It shatters against the wall and all the wine pours out into a chute before ending up in my glass. It’s a little bit dangerous. I had to practice the timing of the duck just right.

Does your background in mathematics guide the invention process?

When you’re a computer engineer, you go through a long process of testing your software over and over and looking for flaws in the construction, aka bugs, and then eliminate them. You’ve got to hunt them–bugs are hard to spot sometimes. Same for my machines. Once we’ve built it, we’ll just run it over and over, trying to find all the flaws in our work when it’s not perfectly consistent. They only work one out of 100 times. So eliminating the bugs means you don’t have to film it 1,000 times.

Black and white photo of Joseph Herscher

Photo by Yuri Uemura. Courtesy of Joseph Herscher

What’s the reaction been like? How does it feel to reach millions every day?

It’s crazy that I can self-publish any ideas I have. I don’t have to get permission like you had to in the old days on television. So [social media] allows me to do weird content that would not normally get made—and that is lovely. My fanbase is all over the place. I’ve seen 2 year olds entertained by these machines because you don’t have to understand a language to enjoy them. … It’s really good for kids because it inspires them to think differently about the world around them and the objects they see and all their potential uses. At its heart, that’s teaching innovation—to think outside the square. And that’s what we need.

See other Rube-Goldberg machines on Instagram @JosephsMachines.

Words by David MacNeal

Main photo by WeWork / Katelyn Perry. Courtesy of Joseph Herscher

Reading next

Paula Scher Designs Playing Cards

Leave a comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.