Joseph Herscher


Written by Hatti Whitman
23 Monday 23rd January 2012

If you’ve been anywhere near the internet recently there’s a good chance that you’ve come across Joseph Herscher’s work. You know. The crazy Rube-Goldberg-inspired machines that take about two minutes to do something such as, say, flip a page of a newspaper or splat a Crème Egg against the wall. Yeah, we knew you knew what we were talking about. 

The first thing you’ll probably notice if you’re watching Herscher’s most recent video (The Page-Turner, which has been taking the media by storm) is his hair. It’s amazing, gravity defying stuff that immediately puts Herscher in a visual alignment with such iconic figures as Einstein and Doc Brown. Herscher sits innocently reading the newspaper until a simple sip of coffee sets off a marvellously destructive chain reaction that eventually results in the page of his paper being turned, hands-free.

Herscher’s machines, in his own words, set out to ‘accomplish a simple task in the most complicated way possible’. The contraptions are inspired by the work of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning cartoonist Rube Goldberg, whose bizarre and fantastical designs Herscher was introduced to by his grandfather, who he says ‘thought highly of the fact that Rube was a successful, creative fellow Jew.’

From what Herscher has to say about his work you sense that it is something that has always been encouraged by his family and friends. In the credits for ‘Creme That Egg!’ Herscher thanks ‘The World’s Most Tolerant Flatmates,’ and talking about where he sources materials he reveals that when he was a kid his mum would put ‘any interesting junk’ in his ‘make-it box’, before adding ‘I still have a make-it box!’

He’s as surprised as anyone at the speed with which his latest video has gained popularity, describing the situation as ‘really strange.’ In the three weeks since Herscher posted ‘The Page Turner’ on Youtube the video has been viewed over four million times and liked by nearly 40,000 users (dislikes seem to be mostly from RSPCA supporters who are concerned about the part played in the machine by a hamster), but he’s quite circumspect about its popularity, commenting only that ‘when something spreads that fast it’s no longer under your control and it feels like anything could happen.’ He seems genuinely surprised as he adds that ‘When the phone rang, it could be anyone in the world calling!’

The video has indeed propelled New York based Herscher into the limelight, with an interactive explanation of his machine appearing alongside an interview on the website of the New York Times, just one of many to have appeared since he became an internet sensation. When we caught up with him he was just back from a holiday in New Zealand, where he grew up, and readying himself to go back to work in the real world.

Although it’s fun to think of Herscher spending his life tinkering away in his garage he actually has a day job designing software, which he says that he loves ‘just as much as making machines.’ Despite the astonishing viral success of The Page Turner Herscher maintains that he has no plans to devote himself to inventing full-time so it may well be another few months before we see a new machine from him, The Page Turner having taken four months to complete and Creme That Egg a full seven. Despite the fact that it’s The Page Turner that has really gained his work recognition Herscher maintains that it’s the earlier machine that he’s most proud of, describing how after 600 takes, ‘the moment Crème That Egg! ran all the way through is a moment I’ll never forget. I genuinely believed I would never get [the shot].’

Asked if he’s got any plans for future projects Herscher muses that he would like to work on something collaborative, saying ‘sometimes it gets lonely working alone!’ He continues ‘I would like to make larger things, maybe something on the side of a building,’ before hastening to add that ‘bigger isn’t necessarily better; I will endeavour always to keep subtlety and elegance in my work.’ With those as his watchwords and a sense of humour to boot, it’s certain we can expect more of the weird and wonderful to emerge from Herscher’s garage.

To find out more about Joseph Herscher visit his website.

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