Competitions and Contests Challenges


If you want to find some of the most creative Rube Goldberg machines out there then you might want to check out some competitions that are designed specifically to find the most unique or the most creative Rube Goldberg machine of the bunch.

What is a Rube Goldberg machine contest?

This contest is obviously founded in honor of the cartoonist-engineer’s invention comics. It aims to help students go beyond the usual solutions. Competing students have to find more creative ways of performing a task a la Rube Goldberg. The Theta Tau Educational Foundation sponsors the contest along with other financial supporters such as Alcoa, BAE Systems, Ethicon Endo-Surgery, Lockheed Martin, Omega Engineering, Priio and Rockwell Collins. Such a contest is not just held in one location but is actually held at several universities all over the United States. Those who win in the local divisions can further on proceed to the national level of the contest. The college national division is held in West Lafayette’s Purdue University. The high school national division is administered at Ferris State University.

The contest has been around for a long time. The Rube Goldberg Machine contest was founded at Purdue University in 1949. So, it did remain within the same headquarters for more than half a century. At that time, however, the competition only served as a means for Theta Tau to go against Triangle. The contest was a yearly affair up to 1956. It was out for quite awhile but was later on revived by the Phi Chapter in 1983. By then, it was already open to all students at Purdue University. In 1989, the contest turned national and was held at Purdue every March. It has started becoming popular, even gaining media coverage and was even featured in Jimmy Kimmel Live and Late Show with David Letterman. The Rube Goldberg Machine Contest also became the focus of a documentary called Mousetrap to Mars.

Every year, the contestants are given a seemingly simple task. They are judged according to how they go about the task. For example, the 1987 contest required competitors to put toothpaste on a toothbrush. It sounds simple, right? However, the competition was all about Rube Goldberg. So, competitors had to set up a machine made up of unique parts that somehow in succession could get to the end result of putting toothpaste on toothbrush.

Examples of Contest Challenges (2000 to 2012)

Just so you could be familiar with the sort of tasks given, here are a few more examples from the more recent competitions (21st century):

- Filling and sealing a time capsule with 20th century inventions (2000 – to cap off the end of the century)
- Choosing, cleaning and then peeling an apple (2001)
- Choosing, raising and waving an American flag (2002)
- Selecting, crushing and finally recycling an empty soda can (2003)
- Selecting, marking and casting an election ballot (2004)
- Changing batteries and then turning on a 2-battery flashlight (2005)
- Shredding five sheets of paper (2006)
- Squeezing some orange juice from the fruit (2007)
- Assembling a burger (2008)
- Replacing an incandescent light bulb with a more energy efficient light source (2009)
- Dispensing a certain amount of hand sanitizer on hand (2010)
- Watering a plant (2011)
- Inflating a balloon and popping it afterwards (2012)

As expected, each of the tasks is simple and could have easily been done without the use of any machine. However, in the Rube Goldberg world, the more complicated the design is then the more fun and interesting. The high school students participating in the contest actually have to come up with more than twenty steps in their design.


The contest shows just how deeply-ingrained Rube Goldberg has become in the world of science and invention, as well as of pure creativity. While the inventions may not really contribute to the world of commerce as sellable products, they have been the products of the brainstorming that students have to go through to display their abilities to come up with unique solutions. The activity teaches students to keep on thinking outside of the box. The whole setup is not practical but it is a study in cause and effect. The learning process is as important if not more important than the prize.

Of course, it is great to be able to win such a contest. The winning team will receive a travelling trophy as well as a paid tour. Continue to next page.