Engineering is usually all about efficiency. The Rube Goldberg Society, however, enjoys taking the scenic route. This student organization is known for creating some of the most eccentric and comical machines at Illinois, and we had to find out more. We sat down with Abby, the club’s current president, to learn about the inner workings of the Rube Goldberg Society.
Who was Rube Goldberg?
“He was a cartoonist. … And he would basically just draw cartoons about one simple task being done in a crazy way, like with animals and taking up a whole house just to serve a piece of cake.”
So do you guys make the machines that he drew?
“No, I don’t think they’re possible, but we base our ideas off that concept. … Basically, we make a large-scale, chain-reaction machine. So we kind of make a lot of smaller problems, and then solve those before we solve our final problems. … It’s almost like reverse engineering in a way, because we’re solving problems with more problems, and doing things in the most creative and complicated way possible.”
How do you even start making one of these machines?
“We do some ideation at the beginning. … We usually have a meeting and just let people throw out ideas. We’ll make a list, and it’s hundreds because people just shout out whatever fun things are in their head. And then we take the best few options and vote on it.”
Once you have your idea, what’s next?
“We build our frame first out of wood. … I think this year, it’s about 7 feet by 4 feet by 7 feet. And then we split it into sections so that each build day only has to worry about one section. … So like, the people who come on Friday will work on one section, and so on. … Then at the end, we do transition steps in between. … The majority of the time is problem solving and just fiddling with things until they work, which takes months. Pretty much from like September to February.
“A lot of things go into deciding which steps to do. Like we have to figure out, will this take too long to reset? Is it too hard? … Sometimes people will have ideas that are not so plausible, and then we have to talk about it and work through it. … It just takes a lot of practice sometimes, and we just let them try things.”
Are there rules for the materials you can use?
“You can use pretty much anything, as long as it doesn’t explode. But anything else. We get more points for the more diverse, creative steps we have, so we try to limit the number of balls-rolling-down-ramps kind of thing. Do some really creative, outside-of-the-box stuff.”
What sort of “creative, outside-of-the-box” stuff?
“I guess the chemical steps are the most unusual ones that we do. It’s usually simple, like baking soda and vinegar, something like that. But we try to do a few of those, a few electrical steps, so motors and fans and that kind of thing. But mostly we just use normal objects and do it in a creative way, so like, instead of using a block of wood, we’ll glue a bunch of magnets together. Use a spatula. … Last year, we had a sand-balloon step—a balloon was inflated, and a mallet would hit the balloon, and then that would scoot something aside so the sand could fall into a cup and do a teeter totter.”
Is the club mostly made up of engineers?
“We are affiliated with the [Grainger] College of Engineering, so I would say the majority of our students are in engineering, but definitely not all of them. I’m in LAS, for example. And we attract a variety of majors, within engineering and without, because this project really takes a variety of ways of thinking, so we need a variety of students to make it work.”
What made you decide to join the Rube Goldberg Society?
“I just happened across it at Quad Day. And I heard about it in high school, but I didn’t get a chance to make one, so I thought, ‘This sounds cool.’ I think freshmen sign up for a lot of clubs, but this was the only one that I stuck with all four years. No regrets.”
How many members do you have? And what is the time commitment?
“We have about 35, including 9 officers. … For new members, they only have to come 2 hours a week, so they just pick one build day. We meet 6 to 8 p.m. The officers put in a little more time, but we emphasize that it’s a low time commitment for new members.”
You guys have had a lot of success in your club, too. Can you talk a bit about that?
“Yeah, we go to competition every year in the spring. We compete against other collegiate teams. We’ve gotten second place the last two years.”
What projects have you done over the past three years?
“When I was a freshman, our theme was outer space, and the task was to apply a band aid. So we applied a band aid to an alien. It was pretty cute. We had lots of lights and black tarp, so it looked like space. And then the next year was a pirate theme, and it was pouring a bowl of cereal out of the treasure chest. … We had a couple steps that went across the whole board, so it wasn’t just section by section. I thought that was visually appealing, so I liked that one. … And last year was toothpaste on a toothbrush and medieval fantasy. So, the themes never have anything to do with the task.”
What’s this year’s assignment?
“To ring the doorbell.”
And can you tell us what theme you picked?
“This year is kind of a picnic park theme, so it’ll be cute. There’s a tree and a picnic blanket.”
How do you transport these machines to competitions?
“A U-Haul. We design it so that it can split up into parts and so it can fit through doors and fit into the U-Haul and all of that. … When we arrived at competition last year, actually, a couple of steps had gotten loose and just exploded. So there’s a few hours before we do our competition runs that we get to fix everything.”
What do you do with a machine after all the competitions and showcases are over?
“We just disassemble it, take it all down. We throw away the wood, usually, but we reuse everything else every year. It’s all recycled stuff.”
Where do you store the recycled materials?
“Just in our space. We have a whole wall of shelves. It’s office supplies and toys and kitchen utensils and all kinds of stuff. Mostly donated. … Members will go home for break and come back with toys from their childhood or a colander their mom didn’t need anymore or something like that.”
Has building these machines helped you outside of the club in any way?
“We do get very good at problem solving, definitely. …I mean, I think part of it for our engineering students is that it’s a way to use the stuff they learn in engineering outside of class in a more practical way, so when they get back to class, it just helps with their logic and that kind of thing. But I’ve noticed it just in small things. Like, I was trying to hang a painting, and it wouldn’t stay up, and so I just stuffed a bunch of little tiny things behind it, and it hasn’t moved in two years now.”
What do you like best about the club?
“I like all of our machines, but I think my favorite part about the club is the atmosphere. It’s just a very chill environment. And all the members, especially the officers, end up being friends, so we all just hang out all the time.”
Is there anything you want other people to know about your organization?
“Just that we need a variety of people, so if you’re interested in us at all, definitely reach out! We like to do outreach too with elementary schools and places like that. So kids love us, and they can make their own Rube Goldberg machine, so it’s very open to everybody.”
With over 1,800 registered student organizations (RSOs) at Illinois, the possibilities are endless. To learn more about the Rube Goldberg Society and how you can get involved, check out their website and socials below.