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Texas Team Drives Away with Rube Goldberg Prize

     It may not be street legal, but a car-like contraption built by a team of aerospace engineering students from the University of Texas at Austin drove away with first prize Saturday (4/5) at the Ninth Annual National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest at Purdue University.

     Using everything from golf balls and an electric screwdriver to an old guitar and a live rat, five teams of college students from New York, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin and Texas competed at Purdue's Elliott Hall of Music with machines they built to load a CD into a player and play music in the most complicated way possible.

     More than 1,000 spectators turned out for the event. The winning team based its machine on what Rube Goldberg's car might be like, and how his car audio system might work. The annual contest honors Goldberg, the late cartoonist who specialized in drawing outlandish, complicated machines to accomplish simple tasks.

     The winners, calling themselves the Rube Goldberg Pit Crew, dressed the part in garage overalls, and they even changed the tires on their machine during the competition. Their machine took 35 steps and about a minute and a half to load and play a CD. The machine, called "Professor Butts' Lala Palooza Car Audio System,"included headlights, a “transmission” made from wood, and an air conditioner powered by compressed air in a scuba tank. It also included a windmill, a water wheel, fuzzy dice, a mousetrap and a swinging pendulum.

     Each machine in the contest had to load and play a CD in a minimum of 20 steps, with no human intervention, and within a time limit. Machines also were judged on creativity, number of steps and Rube Goldberg spirit.

     The Texas team drove 20 hours to attend the contest. The team not only took home $300 and a five-foot-tall trophy as first prize, but also took home the “People's Choice” trophy for getting the most votes from audience members.

     Members of the winning team are: Paul Calhoun, Boerne, Texas; Imelda Cantu, Laredo, Texas; Danny Linehan, Broken Arrow, Okla.; Doug Schoenenberger, San Antonio; Chris Stambaugh, Laredo, Texas; and Kathryn Sullivan, Woodville, Texas.

     The five contraptions in this year's contest featured items such as balloons, a pasta strainer, a claw hammer, spare computer parts, an electric drill, sand, a ski pole, a rubber glove and a toilet plunger. The second-place team, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, used a hungry rat named Ruby to activate one of the steps in its machine, which recreated a construction site. Third place went to a team from Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y., for a machine that emulated the inner workings of a stereo.

     The Purdue team based its machine on Americana, and a team from the University of Toledo used the movie “Caddyshack”; as its theme.

     Here's how the winning team loaded and played its CD in the “car's” stereo: To start the car, a team member pulls the choke, which pulls a string that opens a gate, letting a toy cat drive a toy car off a track, which pulls a string that activates a bellows. The air blowing from the bellows travels between two ping-pong balls, which collide and close an electric circuit, causing a wire to heat and melt through a Styrofoam beam. A golf ball rolls off the beam and into a funnel, causing the funnel to drop and releasing a string that holds a piston in front of a pendulum.

     The pendulum swings, turning a gear that winds up a string and raises a checkered flag. The flag trips a mouse trap, which stops the pendulum and retracts a pin from a spring-loaded hammer, which strikes a bolt, causing a weight to drop. A string attached to the weight winds up a wooden “transmission.” The weight trips an arm, which causes rubber bands to pull on the transmission and start it spinning, which activates a gear mechanism and pulls a pin. The pin pulls a string, causing a hinged block to fall and opening a valve on a scuba tank filled with compressed air. The air from the tank turns the fan on a windmill, which turns a water wheel and fills a bucket with water.

     The bucket falls, releasing a pin, which makes a hinge drop, which pulls a string attached to a lever. The lever releases another pin that turns off the “air conditioning” and pushes a CD into a player. The machine played a song called “I'm Too Sexy.” Ray Brandt, one of the judges for the contest, said the competition was extremely close, with only a couple of points difference between the first- and second-place teams.

     “All of the machines worked flawlessly, with the exception of Hofstra, which had only one human intervention to get it to work,” said Brandt, a senior in computer engineering at Purdue. “It came down to which of the two top teams had the most non-electrical steps. It was very close.”

     The Wisconsin team received $200 and a trophy for second place, while Hofstra won $100 for third place.

     The contest is organized by Purdue's chapter Theta Tau, and engineering fraternity, and received support from Amoco Corp.