Efficiency and simplicity are the major tenets of top-notch engineering. But is there anything to learn from the most laborious, inelegant solution to a problem?
Evidently, yes. A cadre of undergrad and graduate students at Purdue University recently finished building a Rube Goldberg machine that sequences 300 steps in order to inflate and pop a balloon. The process includes a fruit juicer, an extended vacuum tube, an apple peeler, poolballs, a mailbox, a pendulum, a piggy bank, a saw, and an antique train whistle on loan from a local museum.
Members of the Purdue Society of Professional Engineers and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers built and entered the circuitous machine into the 2012 Rube Goldberg Competition. They had a few hiccups during the competition itself – twice requiring human intervention – but still managed to nab second place.
The video records the team's perfect run after the competition, which set a new world record for the number of steps. The old record was 244.
It's hard to imagine a project so antithetical to Occam's Razor, a law that urges the selection of the simplest of existing solutions, as that will introduce the fewest possibilities for error – a principle that, among others, informs the modern practice of engineering. But criticizing it from this perspective would sorely miss the point of the Rube Goldberg machine, which presents itself as an extremely diverse educational tool. What other college projects require knowledge of kinematics, electricity, thermodynamics, rotational energy, and dynamic architecture? Besides, it's also a refreshing infusion of humor into an otherwise sober practice.
Bonus: Ever wonder what that music is that usually accompanies Rube Goldberg machines in those old Warner Bros. cartoons? Wonder no more: The tune is "Powerhouse," by the Raymond Scott Quintette, and you can listen to it here.