Rube Goldberg was an American engineering, inventor, and cartoonist infamous for his drawings of complex machines that perform simple tasks. In 1930, the Webster dictionary created a definition in his name:

Rube Goldberg definition

Mr. Goldberg lives on in infamy with many competitions to engineer complex machines in his name.  Note that Rube Goldberg is a Trademark of Rube Goldberg Inc. founded by Rube’s children to preserve his name. The internet is rife with STEM educational projects and products related to Rube Goldberg machines. Purdue, the City of Philadelphia, the Exploratorium, all have Rube Goldberg competitions. Goldberg himself made this cartoon for engineering students at Purdue in the 1950’s:

Goldberg Engineering Education

One of my favorite games as a child was Mousetrap. I too likely caught the engineering bug from Goldberg’s influence. My Freshman engineering design professor famously tasked us with “Rube Goldberg” style design challenges that often used pieces of paper and other generic office supplies to perform complex tasks.

When I look back on these complicated projects though, I see a lot of similarities with the current problems of the homework and exam culture of engineering education. The focus tends to be on non-empathetic, complex rule following, and ends up missing the key point of engineering.


So let’s think about the point of a Rube Goldberg project so as to resolve why I would risk hypocrisy by advocating for one in the HYPER lab. Obviously, so many forward thinking science education institutes wouldn’t pursue Rube Goldberg competitions if they were a waste. The challenge of Rube Goldbergs drives creative thought, abstraction, and improvisation — very difficult skills to practice within traditional engineering curriculum.

When these skills are taken to another level of the performing arts, they can have huge impacts on the culture of a region. When I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I’d make trips to Delaney’s Surplus near Baraboo to visit the Forevertron. The local surplus store had, well, a surplus and the Forevertron was born. Also nearby are Frank Lloyd Wright’s summer house where he taught architecture and the infamous House on the Rock. These contributions to culture positively improve the collective innovation vibe of the region. People instinctively consider the possible, the opportunities, the number of ways, and BOOM it happens over and over again.

So the moral of this post, when life hands you lemons…

In our case, life handed has ~$500,000 of high-pressure hydrogen pneumatics from NASA-Marshall that we have a hard time implementing with our cryostat systems. We are also working to implement new plumbing, safety, and valving trainings to get new lab members up to speed before beginning work with cryogenic hydrogen plumbing. All of these, combined with the need to set a new expectation when folks walk through the door of the HYPER lab, create our colossal opportunity for a Rube Goldberg. In some ways, a Rube Goldberg is the ultimate Rube Goldberg of engineering education. Overly complicated and indirect. But when the resources are there and the creative community is needed, it’s a natural outcome.

And, at the very least, we’ll have a reason to turn the pages on those fluid mechanics and pneumatics texts.