April 4, 1998
Texas defends national Rube Goldberg titleWEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Dressed in bright orange jumpsuits decorated with NASA patches, the University of Texas at Austin staged a mission to Mars to claim its second consecutive National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest on Saturday (4/4) at Purdue University.
Second place went to Purdue's machine, based on the theme "Planes, Trains and Automobiles." It also won the "People's Choice Award" from the audience of nearly 700 people. Third place was claimed by a team of students from Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., with a machine called "Sleep and Dreams."
The contest honors the late cartoonist Rube Goldberg, who specialized in drawing whimsical yet complicated machines to accomplish simple tasks. Machines in this year's competition, which included two high school exhibition entries, utilized model trains, balloons, cooking utensils, mouse traps, lawnmower parts and plenty of duct tape. Each machine had to use a minimum of 20 steps to accomplish the task. Points were deducted for machines that didn't accomplish the task without human intervention.
The 11 members of the Texas team spent more than 1,200 hours and $900 to create their winning contraption. The judges' panel awarded points based on the successful completion of the task, number of steps involved, creativity and Rube Goldberg spirit.
Spokesman Danny Linehan said the mission to Mars theme was a natural for his team, because most of the members are aeronautical engineering majors.
Here's how Spaceship Goldberg worked:
A solar-powered alarm clock, set to go off at Martian dawn, is activated and turns to knock out a small weight that yanks a string to fire a spring-loaded pin. This action drops a metal rod onto a bicycle pump that forces air into a tube of water, causing a float to rise and trip a lever. The lever activates a toy space ship that flies into a target and releases Martian soil (lead shot) into a series of flasks. The soil finally settles into a cup that pulls a weight off a small platform and fires another spring-loaded pin.
The pin smacks into the Deathray 2000 (a pingpong ball filled with lead shot), which then rolls into a rotation modulator that pushes up a column of blue marbles. One of the marbles drops into a cup, which releases a rubber glove shaped into the "hook-em horns" sign. The glove bumps a spare wheel from the Mars Sojourner Rover (an electric car) and it rolls down a ramp and releases a magnet, causing a solid compound to liquefy.
The fluid presses a lever, which releases a hammer that activates another firing pin. The pin punches a hole in a shuttle thruster (CO2 cartridge), which forces the hammer into a shock pillow made of foam rubber. The shock pillow pulls a pin from a weight, which punches an air-bag. The air pressure activates an manometer that fires a spring-loaded nut up a metal rail and trips a mouse trap.
Another weight falls and brings a set of magnets into an alignment that creates an AC current. The AC power is then converted to DC power and activates the Mars Sojourner Rover, which roars down a track into a pin that drops a curtain over the solar panel, cutting power to the clock and thus turning off the alarm.
Linehan said the most difficult engineering aspect of the machine was getting the hammer to consistently punch a hole in the CO2 cartridge.
The winners will be taking the five-foot tall traveling Rube Goldberg National trophy back to Texas along with a small cash prize.
Other universities represented at the contest were Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y.; the University of Wisconsin at Madison; and Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn.
Sources: Chad Goze, contest chairman, (765) 743-2461; e-mail,