Introduction: Rube Goldberg Machines

About: During the COVID-19 crisis, all of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship's religious services moved into an online-only format. I generally organize Sunday school activities for the children of the Fellowship …

Have you ever heard of a Rube Goldberg machine? Rube Goldberg was an engineer and cartoonist. He was most famous for drawing elaborate cartoons of “machines” that would use rolling balls, levers, bells, strings, and all kinds of unlikely things to accomplish simple tasks like opening a door or feeding your dog. This is a really good way to visualize the idea that small actions can produce big chain reactions! It’s also an excellent way to explore one of our Unitarian Universalist sources, the guidance of reason and science, because a Rube Goldberg machine is basically a big science experiment that requires testing and careful planning to achieve the desired results.

This is a really great activity for a boring summer day, because you can create a Goldberg machine out of literally anything you have lying around your house.



-But here are some suggestions









Step 1: Gather STUFF!

Look around your house. There are all kinds of things you can incorporate into a Rube Goldberg machine. I especially like using books and cardboard tubes. You can build so much out of just those two things!

Step 2: Decide What Your Machine Will Do.

It needs to be a simple task, like opening a door, flipping a switch, or ringing a bell. My partner bought me this bank for my birthday. When you put a coin on the yellow button and press down, a slightly creepy Pikachu emerges from the bank and steals the coin. We decided that we would make a machine that would press the button.

Step 3: Work Backwards.

We had to decide how the button would be pressed. After playing around with the things we brought outside, we thought that the best way to press the button might be to get several books to fall like dominoes and hit it. So we tried different configurations of books until one of them worked.

Step 4: What Comes Before?

But how would the book-dominoes fall? We decided to try rolling a roll of tape down a ramp. We experimented and found that we needed to add extra books under the ramp, as well as a box along the side, to make the tape roll straight. We also decided to switch to a lighter roll of tape so the ramp wouldn't collapse.

Step 5: And Before That?

Tubes! We taped together several tubes to funnel a ball to knock into the tape and send it rolling down the ramp.

Step 6: And How Does It Begin?

We built a smaller, more gradual ramp out of some more books and my partner's electric guitar. We rolled a ball down the strings to the tubes. However, we couldn't get the ball to reliably roll into the tube, so we added a yardstick to make a better path and books on the side so it wouldn't fall off.

Step 7: Keep Tweaking Your Machine Til It Works.


Once the machine was completed, we had to keep adjusting the angles of the tubes, the height of the ramps, and the position of the book dominoes until it was functioning correctly. Science takes experimentation! In the end, we didn't manage to get things perfect before it started to get dark. But that's okay! We got the machine to hit the button, at least, and science doesn't always go the way you think it will.

I bet your machine will be WAY better! Happy tinkering!