Of course, I’m talking about the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest! This annual international competition challenges teams of students from middle school to college-age to build the most elaborate and hilarious contraption that successfully achieves the task at hand. For those who aren’t familiar, a Rube Goldberg machine — an elaborate set of arms, wheels, gears, handles, cups and rods, put in motion by balls, canary cages, pails, boots, bathtubs, paddles and live animals — takes a simple task and makes it extraordinarily complicated.
This year’s contest is already off and running. The 2015 Task: Erase a Chalkboard.
Presented with the most mundane tasks, participants are asked to create their own wacky contraptions in honor of the competition’s founding father. The contest is designed to encourage teamwork and out-of-the-box problem solving, using every-day objects and integration of as many recycled items as possible. Teams and their machines are judged on a range of criteria from absurd complexity, reliability and team chemistry, to creativity, humor and story-telling.
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Reuben Lucius Goldberg
Rube Goldberg was a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist, humorist and inventor best known for drawing whimsical, nutty chain-reaction inventions with every-day objects that performed what seemed to be a simple task. For 55 years, the engineer-turned-cartoonist drew machines and contraptions that satirized new machines and gadgets that were being built in the real world. His drawings were incredibly complex, but had “an ingenious, logical progression” to them.
Past RGMC Contest Challenges
Goldberg described his creations as a “symbol of man’s capacity for exerting maximum effort to achieve minimal results.” He believed that most people preferred doing things the hard way, rather than use a simpler and more direct path to accomplish a goal. His solutions included “How To Get The Cotton Out Of An Aspirin Bottle,” a “Self-Operating Napkin,” and a “Simple Alarm Clock” — to name just a few.
Goldberg’s inventions became so widely known that Webster’s Dictionary added the term “Rube Goldberg” and defined it as “accomplishing by extremely complex, roundabout means what seemingly could be done simply.”
A founding member of the National Cartoonist Society, Rube was a national figure, as well as a TV and radio personality, during his professional career. The promise and pitfalls of modern technology make his inventions just as timely today as when he created them. Having died in 1970, he lives on in the machine contest, as puzzling machines with crazy mechanisms are built in the spirit of his illustrations.
In 1949, at the peak of the “Goldberg Era,” the 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 (RGMC). The contest was held as part of the Engineer’s Ball, which was also sponsored by the two fraternities. This first version of 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 found an old trophy while cleaning one day. It turned out to be the original traveling trophy from Purdue’s first contest. After a diligent search for information on the contest, they decided to resurrect the event. They also produced a guide for others to follow in order to successfully start a competition.
The first National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest launched in 1988. In 1992, the first contest appeared on television when Beyond 2000 came to Purdue to film the contest. The contest was expanded to the high school level in 1996, with the support of the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, and in 2012, The International Online Rube Goldberg Machine Contest launched for ages 11 to 14
Past national contest winners have been featured on Newton’s Apple, The History Channel, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Late Night with David Letterman, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live!, NBC’s Today Show, CBS’s This Morning, The CBS Evening News, CNN and Good Morning America.
2015 National Competitions
National competitions are open to the public, and will be held at the following venues:
College: Center of Science and Industry (COSI) Columbus, OH, Saturday, March 28, 2015, 12 p.m.
High School: Waukesha County Technical College, Pewaukee, WI, Saturday, April 18, 2015, 10 a.m.
No contest near you? Sign up to become a host for the next competition.