Drexel team seeks to make world's biggest Rube Goldberg machine

Drexel students (from left) Daniel Lopez, Ashish Vinodkumar, Charles Bacigalupo, and Ryan Lanphear design a Rube Goldberg machine featuring a toy dinosaur that activates an electric fan.
Drexel students (from left) Daniel Lopez, Ashish Vinodkumar, Charles Bacigalupo, and Ryan Lanphear design a Rube Goldberg machine featuring a toy dinosaur that activates an electric fan. (TOM AVRIL / Staff)
Posted: March 07, 2014

PHILADELPHIA Let's skip the joke about how many engineers you need to screw in a lightbulb, and proceed to the step of just turning the darned thing on.

Simple, right? Not at Drexel University.

A ball drops down a steep ramp and triggers a catapult to launch a beanbag into a bucket suspended from a pulley, which drops down to set off a cascade of dominoes, which then nudges a metal ball into a cylinder, completing a circuit to - finally - turn on a light.

So far, it is just a design on a screen, but by April 25, this contraption will be part of an outlandish, room-size attempt to break the record for the world's largest Rube Goldberg machine.

The demonstration will begin the city's fourth annual science festival, a nine-day extravaganza organized by the Franklin Institute and dozens of academic and industry partners.

Clad in black T-shirts labeled with the hash tag #GetNerdyPHL, more than 40 Drexel students crowded into a room Wednesday to display their visions.

Ordinarily, engineers are taught to design with efficiency. A Rube Goldberg machine, on the other hand, is defined as a device with as many crazy components as possible, named for the engineer turned cartoonist whose elaborate drawings were syndicated in newspapers for much of the 20th century.

"It was something new and unexpected, really," said freshman Ryan Lanphear of Hightstown, N.J. "We use more of our creative side than the really strict engineering side."

The record for the largest such machine, as defined by the number of steps necessary, was set in March 2012 by the Purdue Society of Professional Engineers, according to www.guinnessworldrecords.com. In just under two minutes, the device performed 300 tasks on the way to blowing up and popping a balloon.

The Drexel students aim to break 400, said their teacher, electrical and computer engineering professor Adam Fontecchio.

The project is divided among 16 teams of three or four engineers, each of which will build a module with 25 to 30 of the 400-plus steps. Most of the teams are from Drexel; one is from the University of Pennsylvania.

Each module must somehow transfer energy to the one in front of it, so the whole thing is one giant chain reaction.

Local institutions are sponsoring each module. The one with the dominoes, for example, is sponsored by Laurel Hill Cemetery.

"They're supposed to be little tombstones," said team member Paul Crispin.

Another module design, sponsored by the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel, features a toy dinosaur. The plan is for it to "swallow" a ball, causing its tail to dip and turn on an electric fan.

And there is talk of using a live chicken to accomplish one task, courtesy of the Philadelphia Zoo. Fontecchio said he was not sure yet, but the bird might get the job done by pecking at food.

Unlike the Purdue effort, the Drexel group is not trying to make a device that will run in under two minutes.

"Which is good," Fontecchio said. "Because we have a chicken."

The science festival runs from April 25 to May 3, with a sprawling outdoor science carnival to take place on Benjamin Franklin Parkway on the last day.


tavril@phillynews.com

215-854-2430

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