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Engineering Freshman Leads Team to Rube Goldberg Nationals

Working together to find the most complicated ways to accomplish the simplest task, a team of UW-Madison students competed in the ninth annual Theta Tau National Rube Goldberg Contest held at Purdue University on Saturday, March 23. The engineering fraternity's contest is named for the late cartoonist, who is best known for his drawings of imaginary machines that used convoluted methods and inappropriate devices to perform mundane tasks. A panel of judges awards points for imaginativeness and deducts points for breakdowns as the goofy machines work toward their goal, which this year was to deposit coins in a bank.

Rube Goldberg Machine

University of Wisconsin-Madison engineering student Tom Mayer discusses the inner workings of his team's low-tech automated banking system while teammate Dan Janisch completes a last-minute inspection. Photo by Dave Umberger, Purdue News Service (large image)

The theme of the UW team's contraption was sports that didn't make it into the 1996 Summer Olympics. Its 26 steps--six more than the required minimum--included a pool ball that fell into the pocket of a pivoting lacrosse stick, an electric toy car (representing race car driving) that sent a Wiffle® ball sliding along a string, and a falling bowling pin that opened a gate that released water down a slide (representing water-slide racing).

According to team leader Tom Mayer, an industrial engineering major, the seven members spent about 300 person-hours building their automated piggybank. For the contest, team members were allowed two-and-a-half hours to reassemble their machines. That wasn't long enough for the UW team. "We needed a little more time, but we got it pretty close to working perfectly," Mayer says. Unfortunately, a critical step failed, costing the team points and, ultimately, a place in the winners circle. A team from host Purdue University took first place. Second place went to a team from Hofstra University. Third place was won by a team from the University of Texas-Austin.

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