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Engineering Whimsy: Annual Rube Goldberg machine contest produces bizarre contraptions and lifelong friendships

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 living rooms.

Rube Goldberg's Oversleeping Cure: When sun comes up, magnifying glass (A) burns hole in paper bag (B), dropping water into ladle (C) and lifting gate (D), which allows heavy ball (E) to roll down chute (F)--Rope (G) lifts bed (H) into vertical position and drops you into your shoes (I). P.S. You can't go back and sneak a few winks because there's no place to lie down!
The 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, campus.

“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 been strong.

“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.

2002 Rube Goldberg Machine Contest national champions
Theta 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 or more.

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 and Astronautics.

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 discouraged.

“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 of tools.

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.

2001 Austin winners of Rube Goldberg Machine Contest
Mike 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 enduring friendships.

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.

2000 Rube Goldberg national champions
Neal 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 five months.

2003 Rube Goldberg winners in Austin competition
The 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 April.

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.

Rae Nadler-Olenick

Banner image from Rube Goldberg’s
“Keep the Boss from Knowing You’re Late”

Rube Goldberg and Rube Goldberg Machine Contest
® © Rube Goldberg Inc.

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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