Most inventions are designed to make our lives easier, but Rube Goldberg Machines are for people who like a challenge.
You’ve probably seen them in adverts, films, or YouTube videos: complicated contraptions that go through a series of long-winded steps to perform very simple tasks.
They take their name from Rube Goldberg, a cartoonist who created a series of comics about such inventions. They have since become so popular that people compete at international events to make the best one.
That’s exactly what a group of students from Hong Kong Chinese Women’s Club College (HKCWCC) did this year – and they came home with a silver medal.
The event was the World GreenMech Contest, which invites secondary school students to design and build the most imaginative, elaborate Rube Goldberg Machines they can think of.
At this year’s contest, held in Taiwan in August, students were tasked with creating models that could move a small ball along a track using a series of devices.
Contestants were graded on their creativity, how smoothly their contraption ran, how well they applied scientific principles, and whether they had incorporated any eco-friendly concepts into their work.
This year was the first time HKCWCC had taken part in the contest, but students Mark Leung Chun-ki, Tommy Cheng Tze-chun, Ricky Tse Yui-kai, and Andrew Lam Wang-ngai didn’t want to put too much pressure on themselves. They were happy just to be there.
“It was unbelievable,” says Mark when the group sits down with Young Post back in Hong Kong. “First getting through the Hong Kong regional competition then the world competition.”
Things changed, however, when they started setting up at the venue. “The atmosphere was tense, and there were many people working on their entries,” says Tommy.
The group’s towering machine, named “Dreamgineer” – a mash-up of “dream” and “engineer” – symbolises life’s ups and downs. They started out with plenty of ideas for the design of their contraption, but making it work was another task altogether.
“Thinking is the easy part,” says Ricky. “But you need to follow the rules and determine if it can be done. You have to pick things you can actually do.”
“We also were representing Hong Kong,” adds Andrew. “We really didn’t want to lose too badly.”
The students spent the whole summer leading up to their flight on July 31 working on their design. The long hours took their toll on the team, but it was a useful learning curve.
“We learned communication skills,” says Andrew. “We got frustrated and argued. But then we would walk away, cool down and listen to each others opinions.”
The team also had to do a lot of self-study, because they needed to be able to use scientific principles they had not yet learned in school.
“We were still in the first term of Form Four while we were planning our machine, and we didn’t have much knowledge of physics back then,” says Andrew.
“For example, our gauss accelerator (a device that uses magnets to move an object) was something we read about ourselves online, and then sought advice from our teachers about.”
Improvisation and problem solving were two other vital skills. While the students were assembling their machine at the event, one of their water-powered checkpoints broke and started leaking.
“We temporarily fixed it with tape and Blu Tack,” says Tommy. “Then later we bought some super glue at a nearby convenience store and repaired it.”
In spite of these challenges, the team are eager to recommend the contest to other students.
“Just make sure you have a lot of free time,” jokes Andrew.
Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge