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The 300-Step Competitive Balloon-Popping Machine Totally Blew It

When you spend six months and 5,000 hours perfecting a "300-step, Guinness Record-breaking Rube Goldberg contraption":, it's gotta be a bummer to come in second place to some wimpy-ass...

by Trevor Macomber
Apr 11 2012, 2:30pm

When you spend six months and 5,000 hours perfecting a 300-step, Guinness Record-breaking Rube Goldberg contraption, it’s gotta be a bummer to come in second place to some wimpy-ass 191-step machine simply because you had to intervene by hand a couple times when a ball failed to drop or a lever refused to swing correctly during the officially timed test run.

Fortunately, the handy too-much-time-on-their-hand-ers from Purdue University managed to record a successful start-to-finish run of their massive mechanical masterpiece at some point during the process. Unfortunately, the video looks like it was filmed by the crew of The Blair Witch project, but I guess there’s not a lot of crossover between engineering nerds and film school nerds these days, so I’ll give them a pass this time.

As you can see, the incredibly intricate machine is…well, hard to see. Which is to say, there’s just no way to appreciate its mind-blowing complexity in a mere two dimensions on low-resolution shaky-cam video. Although the ultimate goal of the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest this year was merely to inflate and pop a balloon, the team overachieved by also incorporating all 24 required tasks from prior years of the contest.

"My rule is to tell an intricate story and make people laugh, and have people sit down and go, 'Wow!'" [team president Zach] Umperovitch told Wired. "Since it was the [competition’s] 25th anniversary, I thought, 'Why don't we have a machine that does it all?'"

And it does indeed do it all. According to Umperovitch, in addition to successfully bursting said rubber bubble (that’s another term for balloon, right?), the Purdue team’s 2012 contraption also incorporated discrete steps for mailing a letter, sharpening a pencil, closing a jar, toasting a slice of bread, unlocking a padlock, screwing in a lightbulb (Q: How many Purdue engineering students does it take to screw in a lightbulb? A: Apparently at least a dozen — assuming they have 5,000 hours or so to spare.), making coffee, turning on a radio, putting coins in a bank, playing a CD, shutting off an alarm clock, putting a golf ball, creating a time capsule, peeling an apple, raising a flag, recycling a can, casting a ballot, turning on a flashlight, shredding paper, squeezing orange juice, making a hamburger, replacing a lightbulb, dispensing hand sanitizer, and watering a plant.

Despite repeated viewings, I’m still not totally sure if I’ve caught the padlock cracking, coffee making, ballot casting, paper shredding, or hand sanitizing phases, so if anyone can give me a time stamp and/or viewing quadrant for these steps…well, then you clearly have too much time on your hands, too.

That said, there’s something beautifully and depressingly poetic about investing so much time and effort to design and build a device whose sole purpose is to destroy in its last act the very thing it creates in its second-to-last act. If only they would have turned their attentions to a machine that could have resulted in Rick Santorum winning the Republican nomination for president. Now that would have been an entertaining, confusing waste of time!