Kludge Fixtures

Before President Ulysses S. Grant died, he said, “The fact is I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun. A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer. I signify all three.”

William Safire observed, “Grant’s self-identification with a verb showed he understood the essence of that part of speech: action.”

If President Grant was defined by action, Rube Goldberg was defined by activity. The engineer turned cartoonist engineered himself into ­lexical history.

“Rube Goldberg is the only person ever to be listed in the Merriam Webster Dictionary (MW) as an adjective,” boasts the Rube Goldberg website. The MW definition is “accomplishing by complex means what seemingly could be done simply … also: characterized by such complex means.”

Giving equal time, the site quotes Webster’s New World Dictionary: “Rube Goldberg — a comically involved, complicated invention, laboriously contrived to perform a simple operation.”

In a 1970 interview with the Smithsonian Institute, Goldberg told the story of how he got started with his inventions.

As an engineering student, he took a course in analytic mechanics. Once, he had to find the weight of the earth with a contraption his professor created. “There was a whole room full of retorts and Bunsen burners and beakers and motors. Goldberg commented, “There was nothing more ridiculous to me than finding the weight of the earth because I didn’t care how much the earth weighed.”

Little did he know that finding a complicated methodology to find the useless would turn his name into a perpetual motion machine.

For example, the inventor described the Rube Goldberg alarm clock:

“[It] starts in with the garbage man, picking up the garbage at six o’clock in the morning. … And, as a rope goes through the window, it’s attached to a mule’s neck and it pulls the rope and the mule kicks over a pedestal with a statue of an Indian with a bow and arrow, and the bow punctures an ice bucket. And the ice falls on a set of false teeth which start to chatter, and that bites an elephant’s tail and the elephant … lifts his trunk and starts a mechanism of a toy maestro leading a sad quartet. And the quartet sings and the girl breaks down crying into a plant and the plant grows and tickles a man’s feet, who is sitting on a very complicated-looking apparatus, and starts rocking, and that works a crane which pulls up the bed that the sleeper’s in and he slides into a pair of slippers which are on wheels and they propel him into the bathroom.”

Rube Goldberg would have loved a recent Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Day: kludgy — “awkwardly or inelegantly made or done.”

Kludgy comes from kludge, whose origin is about as controversial as you can get without discussing religion or politics.

The Original Hacker’s Dictionary, archived at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, defined it “KLUGE (kloodj) alt. KLUDGE [from the German “kluge”, clever] n. 1. A Rube Goldberg device in hardware or software. 2. A clever programming trick intended to solve a particular nasty case in an efficient, if not clear, manner. Often used to repair bugs. … 3. Something that works for the wrong reason. 4. v. To insert a kluge into a program. “I’ve kluged this routine to get around that weird bug, but there’s probably a better way.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defined kludge, quoting a 1962 Datamation article by J W Granholm: “How to Design a Kludge”:

“‘An ill-assorted collection of poorly-matching parts, forming a distressing whole’; esp. in Computing, a machine, system, or program that has been improvised or ‘bodged’ together; a hastily improvised and poorly thought-out solution to a fault or ‘bug’.”

Kludge fix is related to Band-Aid, hack, jury-rig (from temporarily replacing a rig on a ship), makeshift, patch, quick-and-dirty, stopgap and work-around.

The concept is an inelegant, sometimes clumsy, temporary solution to a problem. First aid. What to do until the doctor comes.

Like Band-Aids, sometimes the solutions don’t stick. Or they get stuck. They become fixtures, not fixes. A phrase that became a proverb is, “There is nothing as permanent as a temporary solution.”

A version credited to both economist Milton Friedman and to President Ronald Reagan has it, “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.”

Etymology sleuth Barry Popik wrote that both of them did say it, but “Utah senator Wallace F. Bennett … said it [earlier] in 1964.” And Bennet called it “an age-old Washington axiom. …”

The idea goes back way before that. Translator A.E. Stallings quotes an old Greek proverb: “Nothing is more permanent than the temporary.”

Sticky or stuck, my favorite definition of kludge is a comment I read on an old geek (not Greek) forum: “Kludge is Yiddish for duct tape.”


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