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February 28, 2004

Judges cast ballots for election-themed Rube Goldberg machine

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – The votes are in, and the Purdue University Society of Manufacturing Engineers' team scored a win Saturday (2/28) in the 22nd annual Rube Goldberg Machine Contest.

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Employing a theme that incorporated elections and hanging chads, the team used 70 steps – three-and-a-half times the required number – to complete the task of selecting, marking and casting a paper ballot.

"We didn't plan on having that many steps," said Andrew Nymeyer, a senior in the School of Technology and co-chair of the winning team. "A week ago, we only had about 30, but every time something didn't work, we had to add a couple more to fix the problem. It got a little out of hand."

Some of the machine's steps included a ball levitating on a stream of air from a vacuum cleaner, toy football players and gorillas batting at balls, and water turning a tiny waterwheel, before a conveyor belt finally delivered the ballot to its box.

winning machine
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The ballot also was moved through a "Florida voting booth," where it was marked and left with a hanging chad.

Teams in the competition, which took place in Lambert Fieldhouse on Purdue's West Lafayette, Ind., campus, had to create machines that would cast a ballot in a minimum of 20 steps using principles of engineering and physics.

"With the presidential election this year, we thought it would be fun to use an election theme," Nymeyer said. "The key is to a have a few really good steps that will look impressive, and then use smaller less complicated steps to fill in around them."

The win earned the Society of Manufacturing Engineers the right to represent Purdue on Saturday, April 3, in the national contest, which also will be in Lambert Fieldhouse.

Machines in the competition had three tries to complete two successful runs. Teams lost points if they had to interfere with their machine during a run.

The Society of Manufacturing Engineers' team won despite a malfunction during the machine's third and final run. While team members were checking on the power source, vibrations set off a mousetrap in the middle of the machine, causing it to begin halfway through the set of steps.

"I was holding the marble in my hand that would start it when I heard mousetrap go off," Nymeyer said. "I was crushed. I thought that was it. That was not the way I planned on ending the contest during my senior year."

After hearing what happened, judges elected to allow the team one more run.

All 11 members of the winning team are students in Purdue's School of Technology. Besides Nymeyer, who is from Bristol, Ind., team members are co-captain Curt McDowell, a senior from Goshen, Ind.; Brian Enlow, a senior from Fishers, Ind.; Kyle Rasler, a junior from Elkhart, Ind., Brian Decker, a junior from Elkhart, Ind.; Bryan Wilson, a senior from New Harmony, Ind.; Mike Kalmuk, a junior from Crystal Lake, Ill.; David Sproull, a senior from Springville, Ind.; Russel Stroup, a senior from Bristol, Ind.; Steve Thomas, a senior from Wadsworth, Ohio; and Kreig Kaiser, a junior from Elwood, Ind.

Seven teams from Purdue and one from Indiana University-South Bend competed in the annual competition, put on by Theta Tau Fraternity, that pays homage to the late cartoonist Rube Goldberg, who specialized in drawing whimsical machines with complex mechanisms to perform simple tasks.

Greg Wilson, contest chair and a sophomore in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, said he was impressed by the creativity shown in this year's entries.

"Each group approached the problem in completely different ways," Wilson said. "Creativity was very important to the cartoonist Rube Goldberg and his zany machines. This contest is a lot of fun, but it also demonstrates the important point that there is more than one way of approaching any problem."

The winning team won a $250 cash prize and the championship trophy. A team sponsored by the Society of Professional Engineers captured the second-place trophy and a $150 cash prize, as well as being selected by the audience for the People's Choice Award. The third-place trophy and $50 in prize money went to Triangle Fraternity.

Saturday's contest was sponsored by General Electric, BAE Systems, Purdue's Schools of Engineering and School of Technology, and Purdue's Office of Advancement.

Jerry Dale, a judge who represented General Electric at the contest, said that although the competition is meant as a fun exercise with sometimes goofy results, the process the teams go through helps prepare them for careers.

"This contest is exactly what engineering is about," Dale said. "Each of these teams has had disappointments and problems, but also great successes, as they have built their machines. That is what an engineer goes through on each project they complete."

In addition to successfully completing the task, judges also award points based on the creative use of materials and related themes.

Last year, the team sponsored by Theta Tau fraternity and Phi Sigma Rho sorority took first place with a machine that used 34 steps to crush a can and place it in a recycling bin. The team also went on to win the national competition.

In previous contests, students' machines have been required to select, clean and peel an apple; make a cup of coffee; toast a piece of bread; put a stamp on an envelope; and drop a penny into a piggy bank. Winners have appeared on "Late Night With David Letterman," CBS' "This Morning," ABC's "Good Morning America," NBC's "Today," Newton's Apple" and CNN.

Rube Goldberg and the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest are the trademark and copyright of Rube Goldberg Inc.

Writer: Matt Holsapple, (765) 494-2073,

Sources: Greg Wilson, local contest chair, (765) 743-2461 ext. 895,

Josh Sandler, national contest chair, (765) 743-2461, ext. 879,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

Curt McDowell, Andrew Nymeyer and Brian Enlow, from left, all seniors in Purdue University's School of Technology, celebrate after winning today's (Saturday, 2/28) Rube Goldberg Machine Contest. The competition pays homage to the late cartoonist Rube Goldberg, who specialized in drawing whimsical machines with complex mechanisms to perform simple tasks. Their machine, which used 70 steps to cast a ballot, will represent Purdue at the national contest on April 3. (Purdue News Service photo/Mark Simons)

A publication-quality photo is available at


From left, Brian Enlow, a senior from Fishers, Ind., and Kreig Kaiser, a junior from Elwood, Ind., watch their machine complete a successful run today (Saturday, 2/28) in Purdue University's Rube Goldberg Machine Contest. Their machine, sponsored by the Society of Professional Engineers, won the competition and will represent Purdue at the national contest on April 3. Teams in the contest had to build machines that used a minimum of 20 steps to cast a ballot using principles of engineering and physics. (Purdue News Service photo/Mark Simons)

A publication-quality photo is available at

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