How many steps does it take to change a lightbulb? If you're participating in the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest (RGMC), at least 20.
Engineering students let their hair down each year for the RGMC, which challenges them to create ridiculously complicated contraptions to execute a simple task. College and high school teams in the past have devised loony ways of juicing oranges, sharpening pencils and affixing stamps. This year contestants had to build a machine to dispense hand sanitizer; the challenge for 2011 is watering a plant. The "Olympics of Complexity" originated at Purdue University and became a national competition in the late 1980s.
The contest is inspired by acclaimed cartoonist and onetime engineer Rube Goldberg, whose name is synonymous with the kind of amusingly inefficient inventions he created on page. As TIME wrote upon his death in 1970, "Goldberg's contraptions used owls and trumpets to nominate people for political office, pistols and crows to feed an infant and rock its cradle. There was even a Hitler-kicking machine that gave the Führer his comeuppance via a cat, a mouse and a stripteaser. Goldberg constructed chains of causality that could be as illogical as life itself."
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