sealPurdue News

December 1996

Making the simple difficult is object of Rube Goldberg Contest

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Computers are designed to save us time and simplify our work, but groups of college students are working hard to make computers more difficult to use.

They'll show off their prowess for making the simple difficult at the 10th annual National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest on April 5 at Purdue University.

Each year, students from across the country are challenged to build complicated and often humorous machines to accomplish a very simple task -- put a stamp on an envelope, screw in a light bulb, fry an egg -- in 20 or more steps. This year, students are building contraptions to load a CD into a computer and run a program, or into a CD player and play music.

Students build their machines by combining the principles of physics and engineering with common objects, such as marbles, mouse traps, vacuum cleaner and VCR parts, stuffed animals, bowling pins, electric drills, tin cans, rubber tubing, and small kitchen appliances.

Each machine must run, be reset and run again in nine minutes. Machines also will be judged and awarded points based on the creative use of materials and use of related themes. Points are taken off for human intervention after the machine starts or for exceeding the time limit.

"It's amazing what turns up in these machines," says Daniel Colpi, student chairman of the contest and a junior in computer engineering from Southport, Conn. "Although the task concerns electronic devices, the judges will be looking for innovative use of nonpowered steps, which harkens back to the Rube Goldberg tradition."

Goldberg was a cartoonist who specialized in drawing whimsical machines with complex mechanisms to perform simple tasks.

The contest, free and open to the public, begins at 11:30 a.m. in Purdue's Elliott Hall of Music.

Purdue's team will be chosen Feb. 8 at Purdue's local contest. Purdue won the national competition in 1996, competing against teams from New York, Texas, Wisconsin and Indiana to put a coin in a bank.

The winning team will receive a cash prize and the five-foot-tall traveling Rube Goldberg trophy. The second- and third-place teams also receive cash and trophies.

In addition to prizes for the top three teams, a "People's Choice" award will be given to the team whose machine gets the most votes from audience members.

The national contest is sponsored by Rube Goldberg Inc. and is organized by student members of Purdue's chapter of Theta Tau fraternity, who also maintain a World Wide Web page at

The contest at Purdue started in 1949 and ran until 1955. It was revived by Theta Tau, a national engineering fraternity, in 1983 to celebrate National Engineers' Week. The first National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest was held at Purdue in 1988.

Past national contest winners include Purdue, two-time winner Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The contests have attracted nationwide attention, with coverage in publications from the Wall Street Journal and Discover to People and Seventeen magazines. They also have been featured on a number of television shows, including "Newton's Apple," "Late Night With David Letterman," "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee," "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," NBC's "Today," ABC's "Good Morning America," CBS's "This Morning," CBS News and CNN.

The contest also has received international television coverage from Australian-produced "Beyond 2000" and a Japanese science and technology program called "High-Tech Shower."

Source: Daniel Colpi, (765) 743-2461; e-mail,

Writer: Amanda Siegfried, (765) 494-4709; e-mail,

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: Video and photographs of past contests are available. Journalists will not be allowed on the stage with the machines during the competition, but they are welcome on stage before and after the contest. Purdue will provide video and photo pool coverage and direct audio and video feeds. Video b-roll, photos and a news release will be available the afternoon of the event. Satellite assistance is available. A color photo from the 1996 contest is available from Purdue News Service or download here. For more information, contact Amanda Siegfried, News Service, (765) 494-4709; e-mail,


At the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, the machines don't always work as planned, as these Purdue students learned the hard way during the 1996 contest. The challenge for the 1997 contest is to build a machine that uses at least 20 steps to load a CD into a computer and run a program, or into a CD player and play music. (Purdue News Service Photo by David Umberger)

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