Today is, of course, United States Independence Day. So everyone there will be enjoying an extra day off. There will be parades and picnics, concerts barbecues and fireworks displays. If you are an American citizen I truly wish you a wonderful day and I’m glad your independence has worked out so well for you. Here in the UK however, our own new and largely unlooked for independence is not going so well. Seriously, we must look like a bunch of idiots to the rest the world right now. So, I’d like to say, that if you’ve seen a very rude and stupid man called Farage spouting off in the EU, he doesn’t speak for all of us. We think he’s awful. This man pretty much sums up my feelings on the subject right now, but don’t click on the link unless you enjoy swearing. In case you’ve never seen him before, Jonathan Pie is a performer, not a reporter, but he’s always pretty much spot on about these things.
So, I’m going to leave humanity aside for a moment, to tell you that Koko the gorilla was born in San Francisco Zoo on this day in 1971. Koko has learned a form of sign language which means she is able to communicate with humans. What began as a piece of research for a Ph.D. thesis in 1972 has become a life long relationship between Koko and Dr. Francine Patterson. She says Koko can now understand around 2,000 English words and 1,000 signs. She is even able to put signs together to make new words. For example, when she didn’t know the word for ‘ring’, she was able to put together the words ‘finger’ and ‘bracelet’ to make herself understood. Similarly she had put together the words ‘eye’ and ‘hat’ to mean ‘mask’ and ‘trouble surprise’ for ‘crazy’. She is also able to recognise herself in a mirror, which is unusual for gorillas.
In 1983 she asked if she could have a cat. She was given a toy cat, but that wasn’t good enough. She refused to play with it and kept making the sign for ‘sad’. So on her birthday in 1984 she was allowed a kitten, who she named All Ball. She was very gentle with the kitten, treating it like a baby gorilla.
All Ball was the first of five cats that she has cared for. Although she is clearly delighted by her pets, their relationships have also revealed her ability to lie. On one occasion, whilst feeling particularly destructive, she managed to tear a sink from the wall in her enclosure. When she was asked how it had happened, she replied that the kitten had done it.
Ah, even animals lie to us, maybe I’ll stick with humans. There seem to be loads of famous American humans who celebrate their birthday today. But out of all of them, I think I want to tell you about Rube Goldberg, who was born in San Francisco in 1883. Goldberg loved drawing but, on his father’s advice, trained to be an engineer and wound up working for the San Francisco sewer department. He didn’t like it very much and soon left to take a job as a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle and later, the New York Evening Mail. He drew political cartoons which earned him the Pulitzer Prize and also a lot of hate mail. So much that he persuaded his sons, George and Thomas, to the change their surnames. Thomas chose the name George and George liked it as well, so they became Thomas George and George George.
Goldberg’s time spent in engineering was not wasted because he became most famous for his cartoons featuring a character called Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts. A character who he later admitted was based on a couple of his university professors. Professor Butts built extremely complicated machines that performed simple tasks in a very round about way. Perhaps he was inspired by devices like this one, on the right, What it does is lift your hat from your head, rotate it slightly then drop it back down again. It was a serious invention that was patented in 1896. What was its purpose? So that you could still greet someone politely, even if your hands were full.
The name Rube Goldberg is now synonymous with any overly complex apparatus. There is even a national Rube Goldberg Machine Contest. This year, the winners found an extremely tortuous way of opening an umbrella.
In the UK we use the term ‘Heath Robinson’ in a similar way. There’s something terribly satisfying about watching a ‘Rube Goldberg’ machine in action. They are universally appealing. You can find them in Sesame Street. You can find them in the Saw films. But, as I opened today by giving you a link to a video of a furious man, I thought maybe we could have a look at this OK GO video, which never fails to cheer me up.