BTN LiveBIG: Purdue's Rube Goldberg wins award

How did Rube Goldberg’s name become synonymous with overcomplicated machines that do simple tasks? Because he made cartoon fun of complicated machines. He was so successful at his drawings that a hundred years after his birth, Purdue University decided to harness the obsession Americans have with his absurdly complex machines and founded a competition for people to design machines like Goldberg drew.

Rube cartoon

Rube Goldberg was born on July 4, 1883, and raised in the San Francisco Bay area. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a College of Mining degree. In 1907, Goldberg moved to New York City, where he became a renowned cartoonist for multiple publications.

This year, the Purdue Society of Professional Engineers student Rube Goldberg team (PSPE) became the eighth Purdue team in the last 16 years to win the Rube Goldberg Machine National Championship. Their innovation propelled them onto the set of Jimmy Kimmel Live!

Competition rules called for the machine to be at least six feet by six feet by six feet with at least 20 steps. Special to 2014, the competition required competitors to incorporate a zipper into the contraption. The PSPE team used this at the end of their routine, with the machine zipping a garment. The incorporation of a human in a sweatshirt, vest, hoodie, etc. was unique to this year’s national and regional competitions.

“We are the first team in the history of the competition to use a person,” says Jordan Vallejo, 19, team member and president-elect for PSPE’s 2014-2015 school year.

Vallejo says the human element was an important attribute to judges at both the regional competition at Purdue (in which three other Purdue teams served in the Midwest field) and the national competition in Columbus, Ohio. Traditionally, Rube Goldberg machines rely on a series of connected smaller contraptions without human interference after the start. For PSPE, the idea was to let the machine affect a human being.

The team spent between 3,000-4,000 hours working on the machine before regionals in late February. The eight-person group worked on the project in an off-campus workshop, a location Vallejo attributes to much of the success.

“What I think differs for our team is the amount of resources we have,” Vallejo, a Los Angeles native, says. “We have our own shop off campus, so we have our own tools and we really rely on teamwork and education. We require people to put in the time to get there.”

As for the construction, Vallejo says the team starts each year by discussing possible themes. The members search the Internet for inspiration of small machines that can be a part of a bigger entity. The team tries to match its individual desires with a broad thematic image.

“Someone was like ‘oh, let’s put a gumball machine on there’,” Vallejo says of the initial discussions. “What if we made it all things we could find easily in our garage? From there, people kind of decided what they wanted to build, what they thought would be cool to imitate, then we worked together to fit from one module to another.”

The final product featured a gumball machine, a dog toy launcher, a shark attack and a series of other mini-models (around 75 steps/transfers of energy). PSPE drew up a narrative routine to go along with its showings, turning engineering into a performance.

As for the Jimmy Kimmel Live! May 14 appearance, PSPE was contacted by an ABC producer shortly after winning the national championship. For the six of eight team members that traveled, flying was not a concern. However, for the delicate Rube Goldberg machine, not all was easy. PSPE had to research a trustworthy mechanism for shipping a precise Rube Goldberg machine from West Lafayette, Ind. to Hollywood, Calif.

Thankfully, the machine got to the west coast. And the problems were limited, if any.

“It actually worked better on the show than it did in competition,” Vallejo says.

Fellow PSPE member and captain for 2014-15 Andrew Rawlins admits he had no idea what to expect when reuniting with the machine in Hollywood. He was as surprised as Vallejo to see the machine in good standing.

“When we unpacked the machine it didn’t look to be damaged at all,” Rawlins, of Greenwood, Ind., said. “We did a few runs of the machine and it worked flawlessly every time, which was not expected at all.”

The team needed about two hours repairing any loose ends cause by travel dues, but all ticks were quick fixes. PSPE also ran a few quick test runs before bringing the machine out from behind the curtain.

“The couple of hours we spent working on the machine before the show were more exciting than frantic,” Vallejo says.

Kimmel joked with the students about going “dumpster diving” for parts and he handed over a quarter to get the machine started. The machine zipped the fleece of a security guard, Guillermo. While Kimmel also welcomed Emily Blunt, Daymond John and The Birds of Satan that night, he found time to sign the Rube Goldberg Machine.

After the TV appearance, the machine was returned to Indiana, where it will remain in the shop over the summer. Vallejo says remaining members of the team will reconvene in the fall and discuss what steps to take with the award-winning contraption. Giving it to a school or a museum are possibilities.

As Vallejo comes in as the new team president, she cannot worry about what is now the machine of the past. A new year waits on the horizon in 2014-2015.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to recruit new incoming minds that have ideas that we’ve never even thought year’s intake,” she says.

Purdue University holds three Guinness World Records for machine complexity, and it added a late night television appearance this year. For PSPE, the stakes continue to rise with another year on the horizon.

In 2015, there is no zipper requirement. Instead, the year’s detail is to shine a shoe.

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