The mad machines of Joseph Herscher

How the crazy cartoons of a Pulitzer prize-winning American engineer became the crazy inventions of a Kiwi software developer, who became the subject of a New Zealand-made movie.

Waking up in his Brooklyn apartment, New Zealander Joseph Herscher has a Rube Goldberg machine as his alarm clock. Traditional ones just don’t do it for him. 

Instead, turning sleepily, Herscher grabs his ringing phone off the desk. A wooden ruler below the phone lifts up, and a toy truck rolls off. A spirit level is pulled by a piece of string tied to the toy truck, which then drops a small fire extinguisher. This tugs on more ropes, which dramatically pull apart Herscher’s curtains.

It’s the sort of wake-up call you can’t just roll over and ignore.

Herscher, 30, has been a Rube Goldberg nut since he was a child. That was when he started taking Goldberg’s drawings – cartoons of contraptions designed to make the simple tasks of every day living (watering the plants or opening a newspaper) really complicated – and turning them into real-life mad contraptions. A couple of decades later, and mad machines have become Herscher’s livelihood. 

Now, a documentary about one of his machines, which dresses him from head to toe (using, among other things, a giant rolling clock, a swinging chandelier, a yellow squirrel and two ironing boards)has been made. The film Joseph Gets Dressed is directed by Kiwi writer, musician and film producer Gemma Gracewood.

Born in Auckland, Herscher arrived in New York in 2009, with a job lined up as a software developer. His parents were both musicians (duo act “The Jew Brothers Band”), so he didn’t fancy the path of a struggling artist. Creating Rube Goldberg machines remained a hobby. 

“I’d come home [from work] everyday and work for four hours on my machine, because I never thought it could be a more serious thing.” Herscher says. “Who would?”

But his first video, Crème That Egg, featuring the complicated demise of a Cadbury’s crème egg, had gone viral. (It has had 2.7 million YouTube views.)

Herscher decided he couldn’t ignore the urge any longer. He went part-time at his “grown up” job and in 2012 turned to his passion full-time: creating machines, filming them, and sticking them on YouTube. 

Somewhat to his surprise, ad agencies and businesses started pestering (and paying) him to make his mad machines. He led a children’s workshop at the 2011 Venice Biennale. And his 2011 video The Page Turner, has more than eight million YouTube views. Not bad for a two-minute clip about opening a newspaper.

The rags to riches (creativity-wise) story would have resonated with Rube Goldberg himself, who in the early 1900s left a job as an engineer for the San Francisco Sewers Department and became a Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist, sculptor and author. 

Gracewood, another Kiwi in New York, approached Herscher with the idea of creating a short documentary film about his machines in March 2013. Joseph Gets Dressed was born. 

The project was largely self-funded, but it also received around $20,000 from the New Zealand artists' version of KickStarter – Boosted.org.nz

“I always wanted the NZIFF to be our first festival,” Gracewood says. “We both live overseas, but our family, friends, and supporters of the film are here.”