Aug. 07, 2013

Building the World's Fastest Gumball Machine

by Justin Nobel

Click to enlarge images
Have you seen Red Bull’s Athlete Machine video? The one where the skydiver hits the mark to spin the wheel that rolls the bowling ball that lowers the weight that sends the skater careening down an obstacle course to trigger the tricycle? What about the OK Go music video for “This Too Shall Pass,” with the falling piano, marbles, mallots, and splattering paint? Both feature chain-reaction contraptions commonly called Rube Goldberg machines, after the 20th century cartoonist who depicted convoluted devices performing simple tasks. For both videos, the lead designer and builder was Brett Doar, a self-described “kinetic sculptor” who was working at a creative collective called Syyn Labs at the time. He has since founded his own company—a shop called Applied Chaotics—that creates Rube Goldberg machines and other interactive and kinetic devices for clients ranging from museums to advertising agencies. SciFri recently chatted with Doar about growing up as a DIYer, how the world’s fastest gumball machine works, and what it’s like seeing the world through Rube Goldberg lenses.
Science Friday: How would you describe a Rube Goldberg machine?
Brett Doar: Something that entails a visible chain reaction, or the strategic misuse of tools—you take an object created to do a specific thing, then find some other use. For me there’s an element of storytelling to these machines. A story is just a series of cause and effect relationships—something happens that leads to another thing, that leads to another thing, that ultimately has a conclusion. I think these contraptions have become popular because people are reacting to the machines of our digital age, and those machines are difficult to understand. Computers have become this black box where you push a button and something happens behind a screen. Although Rube Goldberg machines may seem confusing, they happen right in front of your eyes, and the process of the machine is actually very easy to follow.

Do you envision Rube Goldberg machines in action everywhere you go?
Sometimes I find an object in a store and get completely carried away. For example, the other day I found this knife that has this little button that you press, and then a blade shoots out. I started playing around with it, figuring out how to use the blade to pierce a soda can. I was thinking, ‘Okay, if you have a soda can suspended from a pulley with a counterweight, like a rock, for example, then you could drop the knife in a way to puncture the soda can. And if the soda can had been shaken, and if the knife pokes a hole in the right place, it could release a spray of soda. Then the can would lose weight, and that would affect the weight distribution, and the rock would drop and set something else in motion.’ Then I was like, ‘Oh, file that one away.’
What are your favorite Rube Goldberg tools?
We have all kinds of tools.* I’m looking at two bowling balls right now. Random things like cookie tins. I love quick-releases—instruments that allow you to use a much lighter weight to release a really heavy load. There’s a particular kind of quick-release made for sailing that’s used to release a line under load which is especially helpful. And I definitely think the paper clip is important. For a long time, almost everything I made was exclusively out of paper clips.
Did you have a ‘Rube Goldberg’ sort of childhood?
One of my grandfathers was a welder during World War II and built battleships, and the other was a tool and die maker. I have never been afraid of drill presses or band saws or anything like that. I grew up with this notion that there’s pleasure in making something yourself. When I was about nine, I built a suspension bridge across my room out of toothpicks and dental floss. It was something for my GI Joe and Star Wars action figures to walk on. My dad would come up, and I’d run back to the desk, open up a book, and be like, ‘Nothing happening here!’ I also started digging a hole in my backyard—I was planning to tunnel through to an underground playhouse. And I once built a hang glider out of two-by-fours and garbage bags. I don’t think I need to tell you that didn’t work at all.
You’re inspired by the Japanese art of Chindogu. What is it, and what about the art form appeals to you?
The essence of Chindogu is about solving one problem while creating about six or seven other problems. One example is a pair of chopsticks with a fan attached to the end that’s used to cool your noodles. This might make your noodles less hot, but there’s now the social awkwardness of having a fan on your chopsticks. There’s also the physical awkwardness of trying to manage chopsticks when you have an electric fan hanging off them, and this undermines the elegance of the chopsticks as eating utensils. Another Chindogu that I love is the ‘Golf Club Clothes Drier,’ which is a golf club that has a drying rack attached, so that when you practice your golf swing, you’re also drying your underpants. And then there's the ‘Baby Outfit Dust Mop,’ which is a dust mop sewn into a baby’s clothes, so that when it’s crawling around on the floor, it’s also sweeping. There’s a wonderful absurdity to devices like this—they address technology in a satirical way. Chindogu is more like a visual joke, whereas Rube Goldberg devices are more like stories.
What are some recent projects that Applied Chaotics is working on?
My partner Matt Samsel, who also worked on the Red Bull Athlete Machine, is putting the finishing touches on a Ferrari gumball dispenser for a candy store called Sweet in Hollywood.** It’s touted as the world’s fastest gumball machine. It involves 750 feet of track and shoots the gumball at 70 miles per hour up inside the engine compartment of a Ferrari 360 Modena. The gumballs bounce around the engine compartment, and their movement is controllable with little switches and a steering wheel. It’s decked out like a video game, so if you’re a kid in the candy store, you walk up to this console with its steering wheel and put in your token, and you can control this crazy little contraption. I also want to focus more on educational outreach. We have relationships with schools and are working with artist and journalist Jason Torchinsky on a project for a children’s museum.
*This sentence was updated on August 7, 2013. An earlier version stated that Brett Doar and his colleagues have "all kinds of hoes."  
**This sentence was updated on August 7, 2013. An earlier version implied that Brett Doar, his partner Eric Mesple, and their partner Matt Samsel are all working on the gumball project. Samsel is the author, however. 
Can't get enough Rube Goldberg? Check out this Rube Goldberg Mashup
About Justin Nobel

Justin Nobel is a science writer based in New Orleans and author of Standing Still in a Concrete Jungle, a book about observing New York City’s minutiae.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.
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