What is a Rube Goldberg Machine?

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Rube Goldberg machines our fun illustrations of basic physics principles. Having students create such a machine can be a fun way of teaching these principles.

What is a Rube Goldberg Machine?

Rube Goldberg was a cartoonist, engineer, and inventor, who lived in the United States in the 20th century. He's most famous for a series of cartoons he drew, which showed complex machines and devices being used to solve simple problems. For example, one famous cartoon shows a 'self operating napkin,' with a series of levers, pulleys, and connections to achieve the simple task of wiping a person's mouth. The device is so complicated it includes weighing scales, clocks, a parrot, and a rocket.

Example of a Rube Goldberg Cartoon
Example of a Rube Goldberg Cartoon

These devices captured the imagination of engineers across the world, and have been used regularly by educators as an example of engineering and physics principles. They've even been featured in films, from Raiders of the Lost Ark to The Goonies.

Physics Principles

One of the reasons that Rube Goldberg devices are useful by physics and engineering educators, is because they display several key scientific principles. These principles include conservation of energy, conservation of momentum, and ideas about forces that are vital in the production of any engineering device.

When one object hits another in a Rube Goldberg machine, this is an example of the conservation of momentum occurring. Conservation of momentum says momentum is neither created nor destroyed, it only moves from one object to another. This is easiest to see when a ball bearing is used in a Rube Goldberg device, because ball bearings or marbles hit each other cleanly, and transfer the momentum in an elastic, clear way. However, if you saw two balls or blocks hitting each other in a Rube Goldberg machine, you'd be seeing momentum being transferred.

All Rube Goldberg devices also illustrate conservation of energy. Conservation of energy says energy is neither created nor destroyed, it only moves from one place to another, or transfers from one type to another. Whatever energy is put into the device at one end of the chain reaction, transfers all the way to the final action. You can imagine it like an unending line of energy moving from the beginning to the end of the machine.

Finally, let's say you wanted to build a Rube Goldberg machine of your own. You'd need to have an understanding of forces and mechanical and engineering principles. Therefore, you'd probably need to learn a lot about engineering, since you'd need to learn how to use and create pulleys, cranks, strings, counterweights, among other devices.

Projects & Activities

Because of all these important physics and engineering principles that are involved in a Rube Goldberg machine, it can be a really useful project or activity in a physics or engineering class. It could be used as a class project or even as the subject of an entire class.

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