Joseph Herscher // YouTube
Joseph Herscher // YouTube

13 Impressive Rube Goldberg Machines

Joseph Herscher // YouTube
Joseph Herscher // YouTube

A straight line may be the fastest route from point A to point B, but a 300-step contraption is considerably more entertaining. Rube Goldberg popularized the idea of completing simple tasks in the most elaborate ways possible with his beloved cartoons in the early 20th century. Since then, new generations of tinkerers have been constructing impressively absurd Rube Goldberg machines of their own. Here are 13 apparatuses that prioritize fun over efficiency.

1. THE 300-STEP MONSTROSITY // PURDUE UNIVERSITY

Every year, inventive minds gather to compete in the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest. A different challenge is presented with each competition—in 2012, participants were given the task of inflating a balloon and popping it. The winning team that year, from the Purdue Society of Professional Engineers, went above and beyond with their design. In addition to completing the charge at hand, the machine executed every challenge from the contest’s 25-year history, including juicing an orange, changing a light bulb, crushing a can, and sharpening a pencil. Their 300-step Rube Goldberg machine nabbed the Guinness World Record that year for the largest one ever constructed. In 2015, that record was crushed by a Hungarian team and their 382-step behemoth.

2. PHOTOGRAPHY-THEMED MACHINE // 2D HOUSE

It’s easy to see where Canadian photography studio 2D House found the inspiration for this epic machine. The photography-themed project, planned over the course of three months in 2011, took two months to build—and the video went viral. Since then, 2D House has built several Rube Goldberg machines, including ones made for Target and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

3. THIS TOO SHALL PASS // OK GO

OK Go is known for their insanely creative music videos, and in 2010 the band took a page out of Rube Goldberg’s book with their video for This Too Shall Pass. Engineers at the Los Angeles-based arts and technology collective Syyn Labs were commissioned to construct the set-up, which was filmed in a single shot after more than 60 failed takes.

4. MELVIN THE MACHINE // HEYHEYHEY

The Dutch design studio HEYHEYHEY described their contraption as a "Rube Goldberg machine with a twist." During each performance, “Melvin the Magical Mixed Media Machine” would take pictures and video of its audience and upload them to its blog. According to the team's website, Melvin has been out of commission for the last few years. But even without the interactive component, watching video of the machine's umbrellas, pinwheels, and parachuting toy army men is entertaining nonetheless.

5. THE STORY OF PASSOVER // TECHNION - ISRAEL INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY

Constructing Rube Goldberg machines isn’t considered a typical Passover tradition, but this project from students at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology makes a good case for it. The chain reaction is set into motion when wine is poured into a kiddush cup. From there, a toy Moses in a basket, a burning tin foil bush, and matzo cracker dominoes illustrate the story behind the holiday. The journey ends when a lid is lifted to reveal a traditional Seder plate.

6. THE WORLD’S TINIEST // SEIKO

A Rube Goldberg machine doesn’t have to be imposing to be impressive. The Japanese watch company Seiko fabricated their miniature apparatus from 1200 tiny mechanical watch parts. The end goal? Delivering the final component to a delicately assembled watch.

7. SODA MACHINE // BERLAGAWESOME

Thankfully, most vending machines don’t take 175 steps to deliver a can of Coke. But if you have the patience, YouTube user berlagawesome’s Rube Goldberg soda machine is well worth the four quarters to set it in motion. He spent 140 hours in total putting the above video together. After all that effort, the soda must have tasted extra refreshing.

8. RUBE SLOWBERG // BOB PARTINGTON

Inventor Bob Partington pulled out all the stops when developing what he claims to be the world’s slowest Rube Goldberg machine. Growing grass, melting popsicles, a stream of molasses, and a tortoise are a few of the methods used to deliver a golf ball from one end of the structure to the other. The whole process took six weeks, three days, seven hours, and two minutes to complete. Fortunately for the viewer, the video has been sped up quite a bit.

9. THE PAGE TURNER // JOSEPH HERSCHER

As far as Rube Goldberg machines go, kinetic artist Joseph Herscher’s are surprisingly useful. The Page Turner does exactly what’s promised—Herscher triggers it by taking a sip from his coffee mug, and by the time he’s done reading the front of the newspaper the next page is turned for him. This further proves that Rube Goldberg machines and lazy mornings go hand-in-hand.

10. THE FORTUNE TELLING MACHINE // HEVESH5

This fortune telling machine doesn’t feature an animatronic psychic or require a quarter to operate it. Instead, YouTuber Hevesh5’s creation uses balls, beads, and dominos to achieve its ultimate goal. It ends when a dumbbell rolls over a fortune cookie, releasing the fortune inside.

11. DOG GOLDBERG MACHINE // PURINA BENEFUL

Dogs can be trained to do many things, including act as the components of a living Rube Goldberg machine. Purina turned to the creative agency Deep Focus to make this machine happen. The agency planned out the video with numerous sketches and tests to ensure every piece of the puzzle came together, and even created a miniature 3D model of the machine to help them catch any snags before filming. When it finally came time to shoot, tennis balls, kibble, and frisbees were used to motivate the canine stars to do their part.

12. LEGO PHYSICS // CHRISTIAN BECHINIE

LEGO blocks can be used to recreate scenes from literature, construct a fully functional caravan, and, as Christian Bechinie demonstrates, build dynamic machines. The LEGO constructor’s Rube Goldberg machine topples 200 domino pieces throughout its minute-long run. If you’re looking for something to do with your childhood LEGO collection at home, this video should provide some inspiration.

13. MAGNETS AND MARBLES // KAPLAMINO

There are some insanely complicated Rube Goldberg machines on this list, but comparatively simple structures can be equally mesmerizing. Marbles and magnets are the primary components featured in this Rube Goldberg machine, from domino artist Kaplamino. After the frustrating process of perfecting each step, we're left to enjoy the immensely satisfying results.

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at tips@mentalfloss.com.

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What Happens When You Flush an Airplane Toilet?
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For millions of people, summer means an opportunity to hop on a plane and experience new and exciting sights, cultures, and food. It also means getting packed into a giant commercial aircraft and then wondering if you can make it to your next layover without submitting to the anxiety of using the onboard bathroom.

Roughly the size of an apartment pantry, these narrow facilities barely accommodate your outstretched knees; turbulence can make expelling waste a harrowing nightmare. Once you’ve successfully managed to complete the task and flush, what happens next?

Unlike our home toilets, planes can’t rely on water tanks to create passive suction to draw waste from the bowl. In addition to the expense of hauling hundreds of gallons of water, it’s impractical to leave standing water in an environment that shakes its contents like a snow globe. Originally, planes used an electronic pump system that moved waste along with a deodorizing liquid called Anotec. That method worked, but carrying the Anotec was undesirable for the same reasons as storing water: It raised fuel costs and added weight to the aircraft that could have been allocated for passengers. (Not surprisingly, airlines prefer to transport paying customers over blobs of poop.)

Beginning in the 1980s, planes used a pneumatic vacuum to suck liquids and solids down and away from the fixture. Once you hit the flush button, a valve at the bottom of the toilet opens, allowing the vacuum to siphon the contents out. (A nonstick coating similar to Teflon reduces the odds of any residue.) It travels to a storage tank near the back of the plane at high speeds, ready for ground crews to drain it once the airplane lands. The tank is then flushed out using a disinfectant.

If you’re also curious about timing your bathroom visit to avoid people waiting in line while you void, flight attendants say the best time to go is right after the captain turns off the seat belt sign and before drink service begins.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Popcorn Might Be the Cheap, Biodegradable Robot Power Source of the Future
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If you've ever put a flat bag of kernels into the microwave and pulled out a full bag of fluffy popcorn two minutes later, you've witnessed a fascinating bit of food chemistry at work. Now, IEEE Spectrum reports that scientists are looking into applying the unique properties of popcorn to robotics.

For their study, presented at this year's IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, Cornell scientists stuffed the movable parts of a robot (a.k.a. the actuators) with unpopped kernels of corn. Usually actuators are powered by air, hydraulics, or electric currents, but as the researchers found, popcorn works as a cheap single-use alternative.

When heat is applied to popcorn kernels, the water trapped inside them turns to steam, creating enough pressure to peel back the tough exterior and release the starchy endosperm. A sudden drop in pressure causes the endosperm to quickly expand, while the cool outside air solidifies it.

The results can be dramatic: When popping extra small white kernels, the cheapest popcorn tested, researchers saw them expand to 15.7 times their original size. Inside a soft robot, this amounts to building interior pressure that moves the actuator one way or another.

A similar effect can be achieved using air, and unlike popcorn, air can be pumped more than once. But popcorn does offer some big advantages: Using popcorn and heat is cheaper than building air pumps, plus popcorn is biodegradable. For that reason, the researchers present it as an option for robots that are designed to be used once and decompose in the environments they're left in.

You can get an idea of how a popcorn-powered robot works in the video below.

[h/t IEEE Spectrum]

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