Rube Goldberg Machines and the Art of Over-Engineering

When I teach our kids about engineering, I always teach them about efficiency. Simple elegant designs make better machines. Computer programmers strive to accomplish a task with fewer lines of code, great circuit design uses as few components as needed for the most robust solution, and even great musicians and athletes constantly seek to optimize and streamline their movements. The goal of great engineering is to create something that works effectively with great efficiency and reliability. Over-complexity is not good.

Yet there’s something really fun about over-engineering. As a child of the 80s, I remember how fun it was to play Mouse Trap. I remember some of my favorite movie scenes involved crazy contraptions that were over-the-top but visually exciting. Below are two of my favorite scenes from Goonies and Pee-Wee Herman’s Big Adventure featuring really fun machines.

 

Now I’m sure you can come up with a more efficient way to open a gate or to make breakfast (which he didn’t even eat!), but these scenes are enjoyable because they are so imaginative. So this week our family project was to create a Rube Goldberg machine. I think this assignment is full of some very important engineering lessons.

A Very Brief History of Rube Goldberg Machines

First, let me share a very brief history of Rube Goldberg, the person and the machines he inspired. Rube Goldberg was briefly an engineer who later found great success as a cartoonist. This was during a time where machine automation was on the rise and there were many mixed feelings about these trends. His cartoons featured overly complex machines accomplishing astonishingly simple tasks and although they are meant to entertain, they served as a skeptical commentary of the rising prominence of technology in the world.

The influence of his work is very widespread. Until recently, I had no idea how directly the movies and games I grew up with were influenced by his drawings. Today, Rube Goldberg, Inc. (established by his son) holds an annual contest where schools around the nation compete to build a machine to accomplish a simple task – The 2015 contest assignment was ‘Erase a Chalkboard’. The Verge did a feature story in April covering this contest. To read more about the history of Rube Goldberg Machines, go here. For a cool video showcasing the machines from the 2015 contest, go here.

This Week’s Rube Goldberg Family Project

This week I watched several Rube Goldberg Machine videos with the kids to show them a variety of ideas. My assignment to them was to work together to build their own machine. I would help them get started by brainstorming with them and talking about a few important concepts, but this is a project I wanted them to wrestle with and to use their imagination.

One thing I knew, but they learned very quickly, is that building a Rube Goldberg machine that works is hard. Very hard. Let’s say a machine has 10 different phases in the chain reaction. Each phase must be stable and repeatable because if even one of these phases malfunctions, the whole machine will have failed, and then it all needs to be reset. As a reference point, the amazing Rube Goldberg video from OK Go (watch below) needed a team of engineers (55 to 60 people) working intensely on the project for 1 1/2 months and needed over 60 takes to get it right. It took over an hour to reset the machine after each take.

So I talked to the kids about stability and repeatability for each phase. We also talked about probability. I gave them a target of testing each phase to make sure it would work without a hitch 10 times in a row before integrating it with the other phases. Finally, I asked them to see if they could complete it in two days. I didn’t fully expect them to succeed because this is their first time to try something like this, but I did expect them to learn from the experience of implementing their ideas and from the intense trial and error.

Kids Rube Goldberg Project
The kids machine in work.

The reason I gave them 2 days is because I had Plan B ready for them. The unwritten rule of a true Rube Goldberg video is that it should be shot in one take with no editing, but I have to admit that I really enjoy the highly edited versions in movies – they tend to be more magical and fun to watch. When the kids were not able to get a stable machine completed after the first two days, I asked them to program an animated Scratch project. (Read more about teaching kids to code and our family Scratch project here). With my kids’ love of drawing and programming with Scratch, this was easy to knock out in a couple of sessions. Below is the blueprints they drew up for the project and the final result. I was very happy with the creative result – a Rube Goldberg Breakfast Machine.

RubeGoldberg_Scratch_Plan1
Blueprints for Rube Goldberg Scratch Project, Page 1
Blueprints for Rube Goldberg Scratch Project
Blueprints for Rube Goldberg Scratch Project, Page 2

 

Watch the video below to see the Rube Goldberg Breakfast Machine in action.

 

The kids and I later followed up with a physical Rube Goldberg machine using the Klutz LEGO Chain Reactions Craft Kit they got for Christmas. See the video of their first creation below:

Our 6 Favorite Rube Goldberg Machines from Around the Web

Here are some of our favorite Rube Goldberg Machines from around the web. Watch these with your kids to inspire them to build something of their own.

1) OK Go – This Too Shall Pass

This is probably the most popular Rube Goldberg Machines online and led to even more ambitious projects. This was hard to make and is fascinating to watch. A machine in sync with great music makes it even more fun.

2) Dog Goldberg Machine by Beneful®

What’s more fun than a Rube Goldberg Machine? How about when dogs make up the critical components of the machine? This one is pretty great and the kids will love it.

3) Honda – The Cog

Honda used this concept really well in a car commercial using only the pieces of the car they were featuring. Really creative.

4) The Nat Geo Contraption

Okay, I really like the scale of this one. They go really big, even though I know they broke the rule about not filming it with a single take and used a whole lot of editing.

5) Minecraft Rube Goldberg Machine

This might be inspiration for a future project for our kids. Several people have shared Rube Goldberg machines in Minecraft, but this one is by far the most popular. I am not really sure how they were able to reset the machine while debugging since I am still a Minecraft novice myself.

6) Japanese Rube Goldberg Machine Contest

This is a pretty amazing way to make Ramen noodles. The pace in this video really picks up around the 3:00 mark, so if you are impatient I recommend skipping ahead. This machine is a real work of art with many original ideas. And the commentator really gives it a lot of energy!

Linked up to the Weekly Wrap-Up at Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers.

 

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