Machine tracing history of Rube Goldberg competition wins local contest

February 25, 2012


Zach Umperovitch (in hat) adjusts the PSPE/SHPE machine at the local Rube Goldberg competition Saturday at Purdue. The team won the competition and will compete in the national contest March 31. Also pictured are team members David Cannon (left), Alex Weaver (top) and Adam Bahrainwala. (Purdue University photo/Andrew Hancock)

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - A team from the Purdue Society of Professional Engineers and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers on Saturday (Feb. 25) won the 30th annual Purdue Regional Rube Goldberg Machine Contest with a machine that traces the competition's history.

The Rube Goldberg competition, sponsored by Phi Chapter of Theta Tau fraternity, rewards machines that most effectively combine creativity with inefficiency and complexity. The task this year was to inflate and pop a balloon.

The winning machine took 300 steps to do 25 different tasks - this year's challenge and 24 past challenges, including changing a light bulb, shutting off an alarm clock and peeling an apple.

Last year, the same team created a machine that had 244 steps, winning it a spot in the "Guinness Book of World Records" for most steps by a Rube Goldberg machine.

To break that record with this year's machine, the team had to complete a run with no human interventions. That didn't happen Saturday when a part feeding a steam boiler failed. The team was required to go to its Plan B, an air pump to inflate the balloon, which required a human touch to start it.

Zach Umperovitch, president of the team, said the 14 team members spent 5,000 combined hours building the machine.

Machines must use at least 20 steps to complete the task in no more than two minutes. Teams have three tries to complete two runs. Points are deducted if students have to assist the machine once it has started.

The winning machine completed all three runs. Its best run took one minute, 38 seconds with two human interventions.

The PSPE/SHPE machine required a unique design to fit all of its steps into the framework limits, Umperovitch said. The top half of the machine rotates horizontally to accommodate some of the many tasks it accomplishes.

The team now will compete in the national Rube Goldberg contest, to be held at Purdue on March 31.

"We'll replace the boiler hoses. Other than that, we'll just make some tweaks before the national contest," Umperovitch said.

The PSPE/SHPE team also won the people's choice award, voted on by the audience.

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers took second place with a machine based on Looney Tunes cartoon characters.

A machine by the Society of Mexican American Engineers and Scientists and the Society of Black Engineers took third with a Mayan calendar-end of the world theme.

Sponsors for this year's event are Alcoa, Lockheed Martin, Priio, Rockwell Collins, Omega Engineering, and the Purdue Colleges of Engineering and Technology and the School of Mechanical Engineering.

Four high schools also participated in a regional Rube Goldberg Machine contest at Purdue on Saturday (Feb. 25).

The winner was Anderson High School. That team will go to the national contest March 17 at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich.

Marion's Eastbrook High School took second place. Owen Valley High School, Spencer, was third. Kouts High School also participated.

The high school event was coordinated by the Purdue Society of Mexican American Engineers and Scientists.

Goldberg specialized in drawing whimsical machines with complex mechanisms to perform simple tasks. He 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.

Writer: Judith Austin, 765-494-2432, 

Sources:  Derek Lee, Theta Tau national contest chairman,

                  Lucero Duran, Society of Mexican American Engineers and Scientists,

Note to Journalists: Broadcast-quality video B-Roll and sound bites are available for download at For more information, contact Jim Schenke, Purdue News Service, at 765-237-7296,