Every February around this
time, teams of engineering students from all over the country scramble
to put the final touches on odd-looking, one-of-a-kind machines
that will never be mass-marketed or find their way into America’s
late artist/engineer Rube Goldberg’s cure for oversleeping.
The strange contraptions, devilishly complicated and loaded with
whimsical touches—comical or sentimental or both—are
entries in the annual Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, which challenges
students to engineer the most complex device possible to perform
a simple task in 20 steps or more. Simple in this situation can
mean peeling an apple or loading a CD player.
The University of Texas at Austin’s Theta Tau engineering
honors fraternity is the defending national champion. Last year
the fraternity’s entry, a “Tribute to the Heroes of
September 11,” performed the designated task—raising
and waving an American flag—in 70 steps, to claim first prize.
Organized into regional competitions by the national sponsor, Purdue
University, the contest pays homage to an engineer-turned-newspaper
cartoonist of yesteryear who made a career of drawing just such
fanciful contrivances. The local winners earn a berth in the national
finals on April Fool’s Day on Purdue’s Lafayette, Indiana,
“The Rube Goldberg competition is a lot of fun, and something
I look forward to each year,” says Billy Wood, Mechanical
Engineering Department academic adviser and a long-time Rube Goldberg
judge. “Just watching those freshman and sophomore students
busy at work, I know who my senior leaders are going to be.”
Each academic year, “Rube’s” national sponsor
announces a designated task. The contest is open to all engineering
students through their engineering societies. Those planning to
enter must pre-register.
Then they have to build their machines—no mean feat.
“It took about a thousand hours, all told,” says graduating
mechanical engineering senior Kevin Smith, Theta Tau past president
and captain of last year’s winning team.
At The University of Texas at Austin, a traditional rivalry has
existed between the mechanical and aerospace engineers. Others can
and do take part: Theta Tau, for example, draws its members from
all departments of the College of Engineering. Although until 2002,
the honor fraternity’s performance in the contest hadn’t
“Our machines had a reputation as sort of jokes,” Smith
says, “not very serious or well put together. I said we should
put some real effort into it and do it right.”
With initial funds provided by the chapter, a team of three (two
others joined later) purchased lumber and started building their
project in Smith’s dining room. The contest’s flag-hoisting
task had been assigned prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Tau engineering honors fraternity claimed first prize in 2002
with “Tribute to the Heroes of September 11,”
which performed the designated task—raising and waving
an American flag—in 70 steps.
Photo: Charles Tischler
“We were about two weeks into it when 9/11 happened,”
Smith says. Shaping their design to honor the heroes of that day,
they adopted a tri-fold base that showcased firefighters; the U.S.
military; and national monuments, complete with miniature Statue
of Liberty. After winning the Austin contest, they refined their
machine and took it to Purdue, where they trounced the national
competition with a near-flawless performance.
Smith calls the competition a great team-building exercise.
“There will be conflicts, because you’ll all have your
own ideas about how to do things,” he says. “You really
learn how to work with other people.”
This year’s Theta Tau captain, Brody Knudtson, faces a quite
different challenge: to “select, crush and place a 12-ounce
aluminum can into a recycling bin.” Knudtson, a mechanical
engineering senior, and Chris Nance, a civil engineering senior,
are the 2003 team’s stalwarts, with “a lot of people
helping a little.” Their theme is “Under Construction”
and their machine is targeted to accomplish its task in 45 steps
Two other University of Texas at Austin student organizations are
supporting entries in 2003. They are the Institute of Electrical
and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the American Institute of Aeronautics
Cathy Befi, an electrical and computer engineering senior, is captain
of the IEEE team. The six to eight members, who work on a rotating
basis, have put more than a thousand hours, collectively, into their
project, which has a carnival theme. They face an obstacle that
has always put electronics types at a disadvantage in Rube: the
judges’ clear-cut preference for mechanical energy. Although
not outrightly prohibited, electrically powered components are strongly
“It’s a problem,” says Befi, who has loved building
things ever since she was a child. “We’re electrical
engineers, and our first thought is, ‘Hey, we can build a
circuit to do that.’ Our machine will still have a few small
items, like a flashlight, to represent electrical engineers, because
that’s who we are.”
But, by and large, her team will conform to the judges’ expectations
of mechanical gadgetry. While their machine will operate in just
over the minimum number of steps permissible—22 or 23—that
doesn’t faze her.
“Every one of those steps will work,” she promises.
Aerospace team captain Marcin Lenart, an honors senior in aerospace
engineering, has always enjoyed working with wood and tools. His
five-member group’s machine was put together in the W.R. Woolrich
Laboratories project room, which is well-equipped with a wide variety
Lenart calls the contest, “a wonderful opportunity for people
to get tool and design experience, especially those who might not
have had a chance before.” After putting in one day weekly
for most of the first semester, his team has expanded their efforts
to three or four days a week, from 4 to 7 or 8 p.m.—about
60 hours per week total—since the winter break. He likes to
have everybody working at the same time, “so that we can resolve
any problems that come up.” The biggest problems have had
to do with design issues.
Bruns’ 2001 team met their challenge of peeling an apple
in a uniquely Rube way. They used a sandblaster. The machine
placed first in the Austin competition.
Photo: Charles Tischler
“It’s harder to crush an aluminum can than you might
think,” he says.
The machine, which has the theme of an aerospace research and development
facility, will perform its task in about 25 steps.
Lenart’s team has seen little of the historic rivalry with
the mechanical engineers, although until the final weeks when forced
to pull their entry the mechanical engineers were feverishly preparing
a worthy contraption.
“I hear that there used to be a lot of spying back and forth,”
he says,” but I just concentrate on our project and don’t
pay much attention to that.”
Why would students make the enormous time and energy commitment
Rube entails, while classes and homework loom and social life beckons?
Those who participate are passionate about their involvement, maintaining
it’s well worth the long hours and lost sleep. It pays off,
they say, in a multitude of ways, from new technical skills, to
Chris Stambaugh, a 1999 aerospace graduate now employed by NASA
in Houston as a space shuttle flight controller, has vivid memories
of all four Rube projects he worked on. The 80+-step 1996 machine
consumed more than 2,000 collective hours’ work from its team
of 30 (“way too many”) and performed poorly. The aerospace
engineers learned from that experience. Rube 1997, with just six
official team members, “was the quick and clean machine.”
Designed to load and play a CD, it took first place in the nationals,
as did the following year’s larger, more complex contrivance
to turn off an alarm clock. The 1999 entry, a golfball/tee setter,
was “the best-looking machine.” It placed first locally.
Stambaugh cites among the benefits he gained from Rube: wood-,
metal- and plastic-working skills, knowledge of adhesive agents
and project experience with a core group of five or six team members
who operated by consensus like a board of directors.
Tanner adjusts a mechanism on “Rube Goldberg’s
Entertainment Machine” before his team’s winning
run at the 2000 national competition.
“There was no room for big egos except our one big, combined
ego against the Mechanical Engineering Department,” he says.
Danny Linehan, a 2000 aerospace graduate and now an engineering
scientist associate in the Signal Physics Division of the university’s
Applied Research Laboratories, recalls a once-fierce rivalry between
the aerospace and mechanical engineers.
“We used to spy on one another,” he says. He also remembers
the aerospace engineers’ ill-fated 1996 machine: “It’s
ironic to say this, since we’re talking about Rube, but it
was much too complicated!” Linehan values the friends he made
during his years of working on Rube, and keeps in touch with many
of them—including one from mechanical engineering, Chad Bruns.
Brothers Chad (B.S. 2000) and Mike Bruns (B.S. 2002), who captained
winning mechanical engineering teams in different years, both wax
eloquent on the competition’s benefits.
“I was one of those mechanical engineering majors who was
all theory and didn’t know anything about building things,”
says Chad Bruns, now a product development engineer with Advanced
Micro Devices. “But three years of Rube made me quite proficient
with many aspects of woodworking, construction and creativity.”
The brothers also honed their leadership skills.
“You can’t imagine what it takes to get 10 people to
come up with a machine where every step works every time and everything
plays nicely together,” Chad Bruns says.
The ideas come from “anywhere, everywhere, nowhere,”
he says. “ Junk piles become gold mines. Home Depot becomes
the grocery store.”
Chad Bruns led the 2000 mechanical engineering team to national
victory with a time capsule themed “Rube Goldberg’s
Entertainment Machine” containing such classics of 20th-century
entertainment as a stuffed Mickey Mouse, a baseball and a C3P0 robot.
Mike Bruns’ 2001 team met their challenge of peeling an apple
in a uniquely Rube way. They used a sandblaster.
“That obviously changed the scope of the project,”
he says. “We were going to have to work a lot harder to get
a working sandblaster in addition to a working machine.”
He estimates the large team of 15-20 people, which adopted a James
Bond theme, put in well over a thousand hours, collectively, over
IEEE team with their winning machine, “Liability Land,”
which took first place in the university’s 2003 Rube
Goldberg Machine Contest.
“We tried to pick a theme that would require nice colors
and décor as well as offer many ideas to work into the machine,”
he says. Moonraker, a golden gun, Oddjob and more were represented,
and several team members appeared costumed as Bond characters. The
machine placed first in the Austin competition.
The project had many rewards for Bruns.
“We all definitely learned how to work with various personalities,
in high stress situations, and respect other people’s ideas
and working styles,” he says. “I learned how to apply
what I learned in school and refined my communications skills. And
I made many lifelong friends.”
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) team,
captained by Catherine Befi, took first place in Monday night’s
(Feb. 17) Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, winning $500 and a chance
to compete in the national championships at Purdue University in
Their creation, which depicted a theme park called “Liability
Land,” accomplished the task of crushing an aluminum can for
recycling in 44 steps and a time of 30 seconds. It began with a
miniature Batman hurtling down a zipline to initiate a series of
mechanical actions which turned a ferris wheel, a carousel and a
swing ride—among other things—and ended with the can
crushed by a heavy tool box droppd from a height. The tool box was
housed inside a replica of the university’s Tower. Mousetraps
and bicycle parts were among the household items used in its construction.
The electrical engineers were helped along by the presence of a
mechanical engineer, freshman Jonathan Yates, on their team.
“We recruited him before the American Society for Mechanical
Engineers could,” Befi says.
Theta Tau’s elaborate frame machine, “Under Construction,”
was voted People’s Choice.