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Rube Goldberg: Watering A Plant The Hard Way

In this week’s print Newscripts column, I wrote about the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest and the 2011 national winning team from the University of Wisconsin, Stout. Teams were asked this year to build a contraption that could water a plant in at least 20 steps in less than two minutes.

If you’re unfamiliar with the competition or Rube Goldberg himself, perhaps you’ll remember “Mouse Trap,” the game now from Milton Bradley in which kids have to set up an elaborate board of slides and levers to trap players’ plastic mice underneath a small cage. This is a Rube Goldberg-style contraption. The board game is now easier to put together, but when I was younger, it involved rubber bands and a lot of work. My friends and I would generally get so tuckered out from putting the thing together that by the time it was ready, we no longer felt like playing the game.

UW Stout’s winning device, in the video you just saw, took 135 steps to water the faux venus flytrap you see at the end. This is the second year in a row that the team has won. Being a winner at the national contest, however, doesn’t just involve fitting in the greatest number of steps, says Andrew Behnke, UW Stout’s team captain. The theme and finesse of how everything comes together is a big factor in judging. As you can see in the video, the winning device this year tells the story of a haunted Louisiana estate where the dead come to life when the gate is cranked open. It has a mansion, chapel, graveyard, train depot—all the things a traditional estate might have had.

What I didn’t include in my print Newscripts column is that another team, from Purdue University (which hosted the contest this year), built a 244-step device that was entered in the competition this year and that technically breaks a world record held by Ferris State University (230 steps). The video of the record-breaking device is shown above. One of the reasons this machine didn’t win the competition, Behnke says, is that the Purdue team had a lot of trouble running its machine during the actual contest. Each team is allotted only three tries to get its machine to run flawlessly, and points are deducted if team members have to step in to fix the device once it’s started.

Apparently, after the contest was over, Behnke says, the Purdue team ran its machine “for hours” until it could get a perfect run on tape for Guinness Book of World Records verification. “It was a neat machine,” Behnke says, and the team “had some really cool steps.”

And finally, I’ve included a clip that I came across when researching the competition for my column. Early last year, the band OK Go released a video for the song “This Too Shall Pass” that shows off one really big Rube Goldberg machine with a final step that shoots the band members with different colors of paint. As chronicled by Wired magazine, the band enlisted the help of a group of engineers from Los Angeles-based Synn Labs to build the device. More than 60 takes were required to shoot the entire video: The contraption had to be set up over and over again until enough footage was taken to piece together the entire thing.

“We like to believe we could give them a run for their money,” Behnke says of the team that built OK Go’s contraption. That is “if we had thousands of extra dollars and an abandoned warehouse at our disposal.”

2 Comments

  • Apr 25th 201113:04
    by Frank

    Of course the team had no engineering students – they were all busy studying.

  • Apr 25th 201123:04
    by Lauren Wolf

    Possibly a valid point, Frank, although I think a lot of the other teams were made up of engineers. Might I venture a guess that you’re an engineer? ;)

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