What a Rube: Contest honors creativity and inefficiency

Fred White

The competition to design a Rube Goldberg-like machine began in 1949 by two engineering fraternities at Purdue, and was held until 1955. It was revived in 1983, and this year’s task was to create a machine that could make juice from an orange and pour the juice from a pitcher into a cup — in more than 20 steps.

Today’s students compete to win, thus demonstrating their engineering creativity and undoubtedly learning some lessons along the way. In an ironic twist, trained engineer-turned-cartoonist Rube Goldberg (1813-1970) sought to satirize machine inventing, assuming people wanted to do things manually.

An example of a Rube Goldberg machine or device is any complex apparatus that performs a simple task in an indirect and convoluted way. In the words of Rube, the machines were a “symbol of man’s capacity for exerting maximum effort to achieve minimal results.”

Winning machines must complete two successful runs, and points are deducted if students have to assist the machine once it has started. Judges award points based on the creative use of materials, team chemistry, flow of machine and the theme of a machine.

The Ferris State University team from Big Rapids, Mich., beat out seven other student groups to win this year’s competition, the 19th annual national Rube Goldberg Machine Contest at Purdue University.

According to a report from Purdue University, host of the event:

Ferris State used a “Toy Factory” theme to complete the task. The team used various toys including a train, a Slinky, cars, an “Operation” game, a jack-in-the-box, a Frisbee, dominoes, a hobby horse and other items. The team spent more than 3,000 hours building its machine and created 345 steps to complete the task. This broke the Purdue Society of Professional Engineers’ record of 125 steps.

In fact, the Purdue Society of Professional Engineers this year came in second place with its "Secret Agent Man 00J: The Orange is Not Enough" theme. “The machine included a secret agent who broke into a casino, drove his Lotus automobile and parachuted for a soft landing to help the orange reach its destination,” wrote Cynthia Sequin at Purdue. They spent 3,000 hours making the machine as inefficient as possible: 155 steps’ worth of inefficiency.

Other teams that competed this year included Hofstra University, University of Cincinnati and Penn State.

The Hofstra engineering team’s machine required 45 steps to squeeze juice from the orange and incorporated mouse traps, dominoes and marbles as their national entry:

In previous contests, students’ machines have been required to select, clean and peel an apple; toast a piece of bread; put a stamp on an envelope; and drop a penny into a piggy bank.

For 55 years, Goldberg drew machines and contraptions that satirized the new machines and gadgets being built around him. His award-winning drawings, using simple gadgets and household items already in use, were incredibly complex and wacky, but had an ingenious, logical progression to them. Goldberg’s inventions became so widely known that Webster Dictionary added the term “Rube Goldberg” to its listings, defining it as “accomplishing by extremely complex, roundabout means what seemingly could be done simply.”

In 1949, at the peak of the Goldberg era, two engineering fraternities at Purdue University, Phi Chapter of Theta Tau Fraternity and Triangle Fraternity, developed their own version of the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest. The contest died out in 1955, when the two fraternities no longer sponsored the event.

In 1983, some members of the Phi Chapter of Theta Tau Fraternity became interested in an old trophy that they found while cleaning one day (college students cleaning?). After researching the contest, they resurrected it.

The contest was expanded three years ago to include the high school level with the support of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

The Phi Chapter of the Theta Tau fraternity at Purdue organizes the contest. Sponsors for this year’s event included BAE Systems, Daimler-Chrysler, General Electric, Kimberly-Clark, Lockheed Martin and, of course, Minute Maid.


Rube Goldberg.com

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