Rube Goldberg Machine Contest

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The Rube Goldberg Machine Contest is a contest in which college or high school students build devices to complete a simple task in a minimum of twenty steps in the style of American cartoonist Rube Goldberg. Local contests are held throughout the United States, and local winners are eligible to compete in the national contest.


Teams of students arrive at the competition with a tabletop Rube Goldberg machine designed to accomplish the task of the year. The machine must use at least twenty steps and also complete the task within two minutes. While previous entries have used over 200 steps, the 2015 contest required that no more than 75 steps be used.[1] Students typically choose a theme, often relating to popular films or historical periods.

Part of the score is based on the machine's ability to finish the task in two out of three attempts. The remaining portion of the score comes from the judges' general impressions of the team's theme, teamwork, and "Goldberg spirit". If the machine malfunctions, team members are permitted to manually guide it to the next step; a penalty is assessed for each intervention.


The Rube Goldberg Machine Contest originated at Purdue University in 1949 as a competition between Theta Tau and Triangle fraternities, and it was held annually until 1956. Phi chapter of Theta Tau revived the contest in 1983 as a competition open to all Purdue students. In 1989, the Theta Tau Rube Machine Contest became a national competition held at Purdue University in March each year with participation by winning entries from local competitions sponsored by Theta Tau chapters across the nation. In addition to the collegiate competition, a high school contest began in 1996. In 2013, the national collegiate contest moved from the Purdue campus to COSI Columbus in Ohio. The national contest has gained much coverage by the press and television media. Past winners of the contest have made appearances on the Late Show with David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel Live!.[2][3] The Machine Contest is the subject of the feature documentary Mousetrap to Mars.

Past tasks[edit]

Past tasks include:[4]

  • 2017 Apply An Adhesive Bandage
  • 2016 Open An Umbrella
  • 2015 Erase A Chalkboard
  • 2014 Zip A Zipper
  • 2013 Hammer A Nail
  • 2012 Inflate A Balloon and Pop It!
  • 2011 Watering A Plant
  • 2010 Dispense an Appropriate Amount of Hand Sanitizer into a Hand
  • 2009 Replace an Incandescent Light Bulb with a More Energy Efficient Light Emitting Design
  • 2008 Assemble a Hamburger
  • 2007 Squeeze the Juice from an Orange
  • 2006 Shred 5 Sheets of Paper
  • 2005 Change Batteries and Turn on a 2-battery Flashlight
  • 2004 Select, Mark and Cast an Election Ballot
  • 2003 Select, Crush and Recycle and Empty Soft Drink Can
  • 2002 Select, Raise and Wave a U.S. Flag
  • 2001 Select, Clean and Peel an Apple
  • 2000 Fill and Seal a Time Capsule with 20th Century Inventions
  • 1999 Set a Golf Tee and Tee Up a Golf Ball
  • 1998 Shut Off An Alarm Clock
  • 1997 Insert and Then Play a CD Disc
  • 1996 Put Coins in a Bank
  • 1995 Turn on a Radio
  • 1994 Make Cup of Coffee
  • 1993 Screw a Light Bulb into a Socket
  • 1992 Unlock a Lock
  • 1991 Toast a Slice of Bread
  • 1990 Put the Lid on a Ball Jar
  • 1989 Sharpen a Pencil
  • 1988 Adhere a Stamp to a Letter

1989 contest[edit]

The 1989 national contest had the task of sharpening a pencil in more than 25 steps. The first national contest winners were from the School of Technology named Watch-N-Ponder, led by Jeff Cottingham. Their machine had as a theme a Distressed Purdue Student with a Broken Pencil about to take a test. Their machine completed the task in 37 steps which featured a large Panic Button- that started the machine, a Purdue Student, Purdue Pete dominos, Purdue Pete crushing the IU symbol, color changing water, a small truck loading dock, a plotter writing out "RUBE GOLDBERG" with a pencil, and finally Purdue Pete chopping down a tree which went into a Saw Mill to make a pencil for the Purdue Student. It was described by the Judges as having music, drama, and timely sound effects that made the audience cheer. The team made a video special for Newtons Apple show that year as well as a commercial for the United Way campaign. Kathleen Sullivan and Harry Smith interviewed Jeff Cottingham on Good Morning America, promoting Purdue, Theta Tau, the School of Technology, and the hard work by all the team members. University of Wisconsin and the University of Detroit were the two other competitors that year and finished second and third respectively.

1990 contest[edit]

The 1990 national contest had the task of screwing and sealing the lid on a Ball canning jar in 20 or more steps. The National championship team, Team Technology, was from Purdue University and included: Matt Garbarino, Todd Henry, Phil Santos, Dave Kovaleski, Jerri Keller, and Bryan Sower. The theme for Team Technology's machine was "Having a Ball" and took a total of 42 steps to complete the required tasks.

2007 contest[edit]

one of the 2007 entries

The 2007 national contest had the task of juicing an orange into a pitcher and pouring the pitcher into a cup in 20 or more steps. It was won by a team from Ferris State University, located in Big Rapids, MI, with a toy factory themed machine. Purdue placed second with a James Bond-themed machine.

2008 contest[edit]

The 2008 national contest had the task of building a hamburger with a meat patty, two vegetables and two condiments in 20 or more steps.

The winner for 2008 was the Purdue Society of Professional Engineers (PSPE) Rube Goldberg Team from Purdue University. This was their third win in the past four years.[5] The team included 17 members from different fields of engineering and aviation and was led by Captain Drew Wischer and by Assistant Captains, Zach Umperovitch and Greg Bauman.

Texas A&M University took 2nd at the competition and University at Buffalo placed 3rd.

Texas A&M was voted as the best overall machine but was not awarded first place because they did not have a complete flawless run.

Other teams that competed included Ferris State University (2007 champions), Big Rapids, Michigan; Michigan Technological University, Houghton, Michigan; Penn State Brandywine, Media, Pennsylvania, and the University of Texas at Austin.

2009 contest[edit]

The task for the 2009 contest was to "Replace an Incandescent Light Bulb with a More Energy Efficient Light Emitting Design" The team fielded by St. Olaf College won this competition.

2010 contest[edit]

The task for the 2010 contest was to "dispense an appropriate amount of hand sanitizer into a hand." The winner was a team from the University of Wisconsin–Stout. Second place went to St. Olaf College and third went to Pennsylvania State University.

2011 contest[edit]

The task for the 2011 contest was to "Water a Plant". The National Contest was held at Purdue University on March 26, 2011 and had 11 teams in attendance. The 11 teams represented 10 states, 9 universities and 2 community colleges.

The winner of the 2011 contest was the University of Wisconsin-Stout giving them back to back championships. Second place went to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers from Penn State University and third place went to the Psi Beta chapter of Theta Tau fraternity from The University of Texas.

Jennifer George, Legacy Director of Rube Goldberg, Inc and granddaughter of Rube Goldberg was also in attendance. Ms George also announced the task for the 2012 contest which will be to "Blow Up and Pop a Balloon" with the National Contest being held again at Purdue University in March 2012

The Purdue Society of Professional Engineers, set a new Guinness World Record for most steps in a Rube Goldberg Machine with 244 steps shattering the previous record of 230.

2012 contest[edit]

The 2012 task was inflating and popping a balloon. St. Olaf College defeated seven other universities to take the national title held at Purdue University on March 31, 2012. These teams included, University of Arizona, Texas A&M, University of Texas, Purdue University, and Penn State.

Purdue University placed second while winning the People's Choice Award for a 300-step machine that smashed its own Guinness World Record for the machine with the most steps. The final step, an accordion arm that popped the balloon, was named the most Rube-like step in the competition.

Penn State claimed third place with their food themed machine.

First year team, University of Arizona and their bathroom themed machine won the legacy award, given to the team whose machine best incorporates humor with critical thinking.

Jennifer George, Legacy Director of Rube Goldberg, Inc and granddaughter of Rube Goldberg, once again announced the task for the 2013 contest which will be to "Hammer a Nail".

The 2012 high school competition, which had the same task, had 12 teams compete at Ferris State University. First place went to Kimberly High School from Kimberly, Wisconsin. Second place went to Minooka Community High School from Minooka, Illinois. Third went to Anderson High from Anderson, Indiana.[6]

2013 contest[edit]

Hammering a nail was the 2013 task.[7] This was the first year that the contest was held outside of the Purdue campus; the event was held at COSI Columbus in Ohio.

The rookie team from Washington University in Saint Louis took the first place prize, as well as the award for Best Single Step with their machine entitled Rube's Office. Team members were Grace Kuo, Amy Patterson, Harison Wiesman, and Alexa Lichtenstein.[8]

2014 contest[edit]

The task for the 2014 competition was to zip a zipper. The competition was held at COSI in Columbus Ohio, as in 2013.

The Purdue team took first place in the competition with a childhood themed machine. Their controversial final step involved zipping the jacket zipper of a human standing in the machine, which arguably broke with the competition rule prohibiting the use of live animals in the machine.

The team from Washington University in Saint Louis took second place, as well as the prizes for People's Choice and Best Single Step with their machine themed "Going Green".[9]

National collegiate contest winners[edit]

Year First Place Second Place Third Place People's Choice Award
1992[10] Wisconsin–Milwaukee "Indiana Jones" Purdue University of Arkansas
1993[10] Hofstra "Fester's Finaglers" Wisconsin–Milwaukee "Rube's Toyland" Purdue
1994[11] Hofstra
1995[11] Purdue Wisconsin–Milwaukee Hofstra
1996[12] Purdue
1997[12] Texas Wisconsin–Madison Hofstra
1999[13] Purdue SME "Wide World of Sports" Texas Oakland Hofstra
2000[13] Texas "Rube Goldberg's Entertainment Machine" Toledo "Touring America" Purdue SWE "Traveling Through Time" Toledo
2001[13] Purdue SME "The Big Apple" Toledo ASME "The Apple Olympics" Texas "Goldberg, Rube Goldberg" Purdue
2002[13] Texas ΘΤ Purdue SPE "Mission to Mars" Toledo Theta Tau Purdue
2003[13] Purdue ΘΤ/ΦΣΡ Toledo ASME Texas IEEE Purdue
2004[13] Purdue SME Ferris State Texas IEEE Purdue
2005[13] Purdue SPE Ferris State Texas Purdue
2006[13] Purdue SPE "The Rube Goldberg Machine Ate My Homework" Toledo SPS "Monster" Texas Purdue
2007[13] Ferris State "Toy Factory" Purdue SPE "00J: The Orange Juice is Not Enough" Texas A&M "Mad Science"
2008[13] Purdue SPE Texas A&M Buffalo
2009[13] St. Olaf "Mad Scientists" Illinois "Scene of the Crime" Ferris State "House of Rube" St. Olaf
2010[13] Wisconsin–Stout "Valley of the Kings" St. Olaf Penn State
2011[13] Wisconsin–Stout Penn State Texas
2012[13] St. Olaf Purdue SPE/SHPE Penn State Purdue
2013 Washington University in St. Louis "Rube's Office" Purdue
2014[1] Purdue SPE Washington University in St. Louis "The Green Machine" Washington University in St. Louis "The Green Machine"
2015[1] Purdue SPE Purdue ASME Penn State SES
2016 UW Barron Purdue SPE UIUC Urbana
2017 Purdue ASME Purdue SPE Brown University
2018 Purdue SPE UIUC Urbana Purdue ASME

National High School Winners

2009 second place—Cornerstone Christian Homeschoolers, Campaign Il


  1. ^ a b c O'Connor, Brendan (2015-04-22). "A Simple Task: Inside the whimsical but surprisingly dark world of Rube Goldberg machines". The Verge. Retrieved 2015-04-23.
  2. ^ Jan Perez (2011), Rube Goldberg Machine on David Letterman, Youtube, retrieved October 22, 2018
  3. ^ Jimmy Kimmel Live (2017), National High School Rube Goldberg Champions, Youtube, retrieved October 22, 2018
  4. ^ "Rube Goldberg." Rube Goldberg- The Life and History. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 May 2016. <>.
  5. ^ Building better burger at Rube Goldberg contest, Archived April 6, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ "Loading".
  7. ^ "Rube Goldberg Contest - Rube Goldberg Machine - Purdue University".
  8. ^ Lutz, Diana (2013)."Rube Goldberg Contest Winners". Washington Magazine. Retrieved 2016-10-4.
  9. ^ Lutz, Diana (2014)."WUSTL team wins People’s Choice Award at 2014 Rube Goldberg". The Source. Retrieved 2016-10-4.
  10. ^ a b Kluger, Jeffrey (1993-08). "Rubes in Training". Discover Magazine. Retrieved 2012-07-17.
  11. ^ a b Kluger, Jeffrey (1995-08). "Rube Awakening". Discover Magazine. Retrieved 2012-07-17.
  12. ^ a b Feder, Barnaby J. (1997-04-07). "Rube Goldberg Variations". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-07-17.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n "Past Rube Goldberg Machine Contest Winners". Purdue University. Retrieved 2012-07-17.

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