Illinois Wins Rube Goldberg Machine Contest


The winning Rube Goldberg machine
The winning Rube Goldberg machine
A team of University of Illinois students organized by ME senior Mickey Mangan captured second place at this year's national Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, held at Purdue University on March 28. The team had previously won the regional competition with their "Scene of the Crime" machine based on the board game Clue (check out the video of the contraption in operation.) This is the first year an Illinois team entered the contest and the first time a team that is not from Purdue University has advanced to nationals from the region.

"In February we competed at the regional competition (also held) at Purdue, and defeated the four-time national champions in order to secure a spot at nationals," explained Mickey Mangan, an undergraduate in mechanical science and engineering and a co-founder of the Illinois Rube Goldberg Society. "It marked the first time that any non-Purdue team advanced to nationals from the region." In addition to Mangan, the Illinois' multidisciplinary team included: Justin Johnson (ECE), James Kryger (physics), Mickey Mangan (MechSE), Ian Crane (Physics), Graham Stapleton (Aero), Cori Johnson (ECE), Steve Bettenhausen (ECE), Evan Schrock (ECE), Melissa Sorensen (CEE), Mike Altergott (MechSE), Doug Tanaka (Aero), Chris Walton (CEE), and Derek Walsh (MechSE).

The contest's namesake is the late cartoonist Rube Goldberg, who specialized in drawing whimsical machines with complex mechanisms to perform simple tasks. This task for this year's competition was to replace an incandescent light bulb with a more energy-efficient, light-emitting design. The machine must take at least 20 steps, and points are deducted if a team must intervene to help the machine complete its task. Teams are given three chances to complete two successful runs.

The Illinois team built a machine based on the board game Clue. Called "Scene of the Crime," the machine's action followed various characters who were "murdered" along the way in various rooms. The apparatus featured dice, lead pipes, dominos, a plant that "grows," a magnet and a gripping mechanism that unscrewed an incandescent bulb and screwed in a compact fluorescent bulb. The team used 70 steps to complete the task. Each team in the competition had three tries to make two successful runs, and points were deducted if students had to assist the machine once it had started.

"Our machine was the only one that successfully ran three times without intervention," Mangan remarked. "Including the two perfect runs at regionals, our machine has a perfect record of running perfectly every single time it's needed to."

The contest is sponsored by Phi Chapter of Theta Tau engineering fraternity and rewards machines that most effectively combine creativity with inefficiency and complexity. This years' champion team from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, was competing in the national contest for the first time.

Rube Goldberg--whose name is synonymous with the idea of making a simple task incredibly complex--earned a degree in engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1904. He worked as an engineer for the city of San Francisco for less than a year before becoming a sports cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle. He received a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for his political cartoons published by the New York Sun.