VALPARAISO | Zipping one's zipper might seem like a fairly mundane, simple task -- until it's put in the hands and minds of the entrants of the annual Rube Goldberg Machine Contest.
"We started working on it in September, and the contest is in April," said Valparaiso resident David Cannon.
Cannon is a member of the six-person Purdue University Society of Professional Engineers team that won this year's contest in Columbus, Ohio.
"We spent two months of that planning what to do. Then we build it for 20 to 30 hours a week."
That sounds like an awful lot of trouble for a zipper, but it is the essence of the Rube Goldberg tradition of developing elaborate and whimsical machines to do simple tasks. Purdue's winning entry ran through about 85 steps that included the use of a gumball machine, water skis, bicycle parts and a full-sized door.
"Almost all the materials we got from dumpsters and garbage bins," Cannon said. "When college kids move out, they throw out a lot. ... It's fun to try to spend as little as you can."
The whole team flew to Los Angeles to demonstrate their winning machine on Jimmy Kimmel Live! on Wednesday.
They used old road signs donated by a county road department. Cannon estimated the group spent about $300 or $400, mostly on screws, bolts and other fasteners.
Cannon, who has been on the Purdue University Rube Goldberg team for four years, said each team has to come up with a theme for their machine, and Purdue's theme was a simple way to get ready for work in the morning. Their machine made breakfast, including coffee, played music, played with the family dog and helped with the kids' homework before finally zipping a jacket.
While 85 steps sounds like a lot just to do a zipper, it's a fraction of the team's record setting performance of a couple of years ago when their machine used 300 steps and cost about $2,500. Cannon said the judges complained the machine was not in the true Goldberg tradition because it included a steam engine and was not all done with simple everyday items. They took that lesson to heart this year.
"We don't get to do much hands-on work in class, so it was fun to take time out of class to do something like this," Cannon said. "In engineering, you want to make everything as efficient as possible and the Goldberg philosophy is just the opposite, but you still want to use the principles you learned while thinking outside the box."