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Rube Awakening

By Jeffrey Kluger
Aug 1, 1995 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:17 AM


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I daresay I’m not the first person in the world ever to build an oxcart. I’m sure, however, I was the first ever to build one in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

It was more than two decades ago, when I was in junior high school, that I built my oxcart, and there were a lot of things that argued against my bothering. First of all, given my limited tools and my limited carpentry skill, the cart I could build was only about two feet long, meaning that unless I could come up with some 18-inch oxen pronto, it wasn’t likely that I could actually get anywhere in it. More important, in a peer group as status-obsessed as junior high school kids, boasting that you’re the owner of a spanking new oxcart is slightly less impressive than boasting that you’re the owner of, say, a spanking new Camaro, and I knew that this particular asset was unlikely to win me any new friends.

No, the reason I built my oxcart was less recreational than it was educational. It was during that school year that one of my first science teachers sought to explain to her classes the concept of the machine and to reinforce the point by having each of us build our own. To most people in the postindustrial age, of course, the word machine can be pretty broadly defined, being applied to almost any apparatus that features movable parts, a power source, and an on-off switch and comes in a packing crate filled with enough Styrofoam peanuts to feed a herd of Styrofoam elephants. To the earliest human designers, however, who were too busy dealing with advancing ice sheets and shifting landmasses to worry about inventing the Dustbuster, machines were far simpler things. Essentially, they discovered, a machine is any component or collection of components that transmits power, force, or motion and does so in a predetermined way. With that loose definition, almost anything can qualify as a machine--a lever, a teeter-totter, an axle, or even an oxless oxcart.

Of course, just being a machine does not mean you’re a good machine. Inventors from Edison to Popeil have understood that the most important attribute of any well-designed mechanism is simplicity. The greater the number of parts, the greater the number of ways the machine can fail. After years of trying, I at last gave up any hope of learning how to operate even the simplest VCR the last time I tried to tape the NBA playoffs and wound up with three hours of live programming from the All Polka Channel. Trendy shoppers who rushed to the store to buy cappuccino makers in the 1980s quickly switched to Ovaltine when they opened the box and found an instruction manual only slightly shorter than The Lord of the Rings (Chapter 15: Installing Your Cobalt Fuel Rods).

I couldn’t help thinking about my oxcart when I received my always-welcome invitation to Purdue’s Annual Rube Goldberg Design Contest in Indiana. Rube Goldberg, of course, was an engineer and cartoonist in the mid-twentieth century who, like all talented designers, learned the basic rules of good machine making early in his career and, unlike most designers, spent the rest of his professional life trying to break them. Goldberg was the self-appointed master of the inefficient machine, each week providing newspaper readers with a blueprint for an absurdly complicated device designed to perform an absurdly simple task. In a 1990s market in which Hammacher Schlemmer and the Sharper Image are only one step away from marketing the steam-driven shoe tree and the microchip shrimp fork, such a talent would go wholly unremarked upon, but decades ago Goldberg was hot stuff, featured in hundreds of newspapers nationwide. In 1949, Purdue began the tradition of honoring the popular cartoonist by holding an annual competition in which engineering students from two of its fraternities were invited to design a singularly Goldbergian contraption that performed an assigned task in as complex a way as possible (the contest went national in 1988). The machine that completed the job with the greatest imagination and the least efficiency was named the winner.

Though the nature of the machines and the number of schools that enter the Rube Goldberg competition vary from year to year, the rules of the contest remain essentially the same. All the machines vying for the Goldberg title have to fit on a tabletop and can be no larger than five feet tall, five feet deep, and six feet wide. No combustible fluids or open flames can be used in any machine, and while flying projectiles can be used, they have to remain within the five-by-five-by-six boundaries at all times. Each machine has to take at least 20 steps to complete its assigned task, though additional steps (up to 5) are rewarded with extra points during the judging. Just what task the machines must perform changes from year to year, but it is never much to speak of. In 1993 the Rube Goldberg contraptions were required to screw a lightbulb into a socket; in 1994 they had to make a cup of coffee; this year the job involved nothing more complex than turning on a radio.

When I entered Purdue’s Elliott Hall of Music, I saw nine teams of nascent engineers onstage, huddling around their tabletop inventions with the attentiveness of new mothers. As I threaded through the machines, the worried discussions taking place at each station told me quite a bit about both the design of the individual machines and the nature of Rube Goldberg engineering in general.

Has anyone seen the BBs? a student at the University of Texas table called out to a teammate. I can’t fill the funnel if I don’t have the BBs.

Did you check the cow? a student from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee was asking another as he examined a four-inch wooden heifer in the middle of their machine. If the cow doesn’t fly, nothing else matters.

Terrific, somebody groaned in exasperation at the Western Michigan table, the mouse isn’t in his cage. I don’t suppose anyone has seen the mouse, have they?

This whole section over here is way too stable, one student on the Purdue team scolded another as he gestured to a section of their machine. Let’s triple-check these things and get them destabilized now.

From even these conversational snatches, it was clear that the students who had come here today had serious business on their minds and would not want to waste precious minutes talking about their machines when they could be working on them. Nevertheless, a Rube Goldberg device is not something that can be fathomed from a distance, and I approached the Milwaukee team to learn more about what it was they had built.

All the machines in the contest are required to have a theme, says Mike Alburg, a Milwaukee senior. Our theme is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. As you can see, the machine contains plastic figurines representing a lot of the characters from the movie, all of them connected by ramps and teeter-totters and catapults.

Indeed, I could see. At step 12 of the Milwaukee machine, for example, monks topple, causing the launch of that flying cow, which fells a knight, who causes the Trojan rabbit to roll forward, turning a stick that causes the three-headed knight to drop a boulder on the Knights Who Say Ni, and--you should be getting the picture.

Among the other entrants was a 26-step machine from Lawrence Technological University, in Michigan, whose theme was images literally dreamed up by the various team members. One of the builders had recently dreamed about a pirate ship, so there was a ship in the machine; another had dreamed about a knife-wielding ogre, so just such a monster was included also; a third student, having evidently spent too much time in front of Court TV, had dreamed about a white Ford Bronco fleeing the police, so a miniature Bronco was added as well. (Happily, the Lawrence Tech students drew the line there, deciding against including a miniature book contract, a made-for-TV movie, and a tiny disgruntled jury.) Mississippi State University, apparently feeling some regional pride over Atlanta’s impending Olympics extravaganza, chose an Olympics theme for its machine, using a model of a slalom skier, which activated a model of a speed skater, which activated models of gymnasts, sprinters, and pole- vaulters, which finally activated a switch that turned the radio on. In all, there were 25 steps in the Mississippi machine--without a model of Greg Gumbel or Paula Zahn anywhere in sight.

Impressive as these machines were, all of them were considered at least nominal underdogs. Anyone who knew anything about Rube Goldberg history agreed that this year, as in most years, the smart money was being placed on the team from Hofstra University on Long Island, New York. At the last Rube Goldberg contest I attended, the lightbulb-screwing competition in 1993, the Hofstra contestants had chosen The Addams Family Movie as the theme of their machine, building a contraption that included crashing trains, functioning guillotines, blood that ran through plastic tubing that spelled Hofstra, and, as its final, dramatic step, a severed hand screwing a bulb into the mouth of a papier-mâché Uncle Fester head. The crowd, not surprisingly, went wild.

In 1994, Hofstra again looked to the movies for inspiration, but that year the cinematic pickings were slimmer, and unless the students wanted to build a device that included a naked, G.I. Joe- size Harvey Keitel sitting atop a miniature piano, they knew they’d have to turn elsewhere. The place to which they turned was vintage television, designing a Gilligan’s Island apparatus that again had the audience on its feet and cheering. This year they built a device based on a venerable college favorite, the Mercury Theater’s radio presentation of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. As the Hofstra team uncrated their machine and began to assemble it onstage--attaching helicopters to cables, spaceships to pulleys, police cars and windmills to wires and fulcrums--it appeared they had designed yet another winner.

If there was any team that could give the champions a run for their engineering money, it was local favorite Purdue. Two-time losers to the behemoths from the East, the hometown team had high hopes this year, promising a machine with such an imaginative theme that even the flashiest Hofstra offering could easily be trounced. As they unpacked their apparatus at a nearby table, however, I was not sure that that promise was justified. Taking shape under their skilled hands was a comparatively spare collection of sundry rubbish resembling nothing so much as a Calder mobile that had been denied NEA funding. It was only when I saw the name of their machine-- Gluttons for Pun-ishment--that I began to understand what they were up to.

We knew that the machine’s ultimate job was to turn on a radio, Alex Nicoll, a Purdue senior, explained as he showed me his team’s device. Radios got us thinking about stereo equipment as a whole, and stereo equipment gave us an idea for a theme. Here, for example, we have a deck of cards held together by Scotch tape that we use as a buffer for the counterweight. You know what we call that?

I shrugged helplessly.

A tape deck, he explained gravely. And here we have a stuffed dog and a rubber duck that we use to set off a mousetrap.

And those would be?

Our woofer and tweeter, he said. And here we have my favorite part. Tell me what you think this is.

Nicoll pointed to a large plastic bumblebee dangling from a wire track that ran from one corner of the machine to another; dangling, in turn, from the bee was an empty Dole pineapple can. Before I could even offer a guess as to what such an unlikely collection of objects might be, Nicoll identified it.

That, he said with not a little pride, is our Dole-Bee Surround Sound.

For the first time, I began to suspect that Hofstra might have a fight on its hands.

Only minutes after all the teams had assembled their equipment, the contest announcer called the competition to order, and the first school--Mississippi State, with its Olympics machine--stepped up to the Goldbergian plate. I don’t know if the Mississippi designers thought they had any realistic hopes of walking off with the gold, silver, or bronze, but from the moment the first of their miniature Olympians began to move, it was clear that the team might be wise to aspire to something a little lower on the precious-metals scale--zinc, perhaps. All over the slopes and rinks of the Mississippi machine, skaters were crashing into skiers who were crashing into lugers who were crashing into gymnasts. Before a miniature plastic gymnast could get shot by a miniature plastic biathlete, the Mississippi designers shut their machine down and retreated to their table to figure out what had gone wrong.

Western Michigan, of the missing mouse, fared little better on its attempt, with a breakdown of near-tectonic proportions causing a complete collapse of almost every part of the device at once. Wisconsin’s Monty Python machine also crashed midway through its first cycle, while Lawrence Tech (the team that dreamed up its hardware) and Texas (the team with the AWOL BBs) got through their runs without a single mechanical stumble.

For all the fluctuating fortunes of the machines onstage, it was only when the time came for Purdue and Hofstra to strut their designing stuff that the air in the Elliott auditorium truly began to crackle. Purdue was the first of the two Goldberg giants to make its run, and once Alex Nicoll cranked up the contraption, it became obvious that the local designers had built a true contender. Nicoll got the machine going by throwing the switch on a battery-operated dancing plant, which, in the punning argot of the Purdue team, served as the device’s power plant. The plant knocked loose a precariously balanced ball bearing, which in turn fell on a switch controlling a train on one of eight stretches of track (an eight-track). The train then moved a few inches and struck a lever that set off a mousetrap, knocking loose a toy Transformer figurine (a radio transformer). In rapid succession after that, a battery-operated blender (the mixer) caused the stuffed dog (the woofer) to trigger the rubber duck (the tweeter), a spinning bar of soap (the Dial), a twirling plastic stockbroker (a CD player), and, in a triumph of creative punning, a flow of water through a clear tube decorated with plastic cowboys and Indians (a current through resistors). By the time the Dole-Bee began gliding along its cable and a pair of plush, antenna-like rabbit ears rose from the back of the machine, the Purdue partisans in the audience suspected they just might be witnessing a winner. When a balance arm at last depressed a switch on a radio, rendering it, in a final fillip of punning, radioactive, they were sure of it.

For an instant, not a sound could be heard in the auditorium beyond the tinny play of the Purdue team’s radio. Then the announcer stepped slowly toward his microphone.

The task, he intoned solemnly, has been completed.

The state of Indiana has no doubt witnessed lustier celebrations- -V-E Day, V-J Day, the day Indiana Wants Me at last dropped off the Top 40 playlist--but on this day, in this place, all of them were forgotten. Though three other teams had yet to display their machines--including the juggernaut team from Hofstra--it was apparent that unless one of them had invented a device that could not only turn on a radio but adjust its volume, tune it to an interesting station, and mail back the warranty card before the year of free service expired, Purdue would be crowned the winner by near-unanimous acclamation.

As it turned out, none of the other teams even came close to such design excellence, with even the mighty Hofstra’s machine suffering at least one breakdown before it completed its task. When the time came to announce the winners, it was Hofstra finishing third, Wisconsin and its Monty Python machine second, and Purdue--the perennial runner-up--first.

I don’t know how we came up with the idea for this machine in the first place, said an exultant Alex Nicoll to the crush of press that surrounded him after the championship trophy was presented. One night we were all sitting around, feeling pretty goofy, and it just occurred to us. Maybe it was all the Mountain Dew we were drinking. And as for next year? Will Purdue, the reigning Rubes and hometown favorites, try to repeat this year’s triumph?

Absolutely, says Nicoll. This is a contest that allows us to go out, build something completely silly, and display it in front of hundreds of people. I can’t think of another machine I’ll ever be asked to design that will allow me to be totally ridiculous and still get credit for it.

Evidently, he never heard of an oxcart.

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