Chain reaction machines, sometimes known as Rube Goldberg machines after the cartoonist who popularized the concept, are machines that launch a series of precise steps to accomplish a single task. They are often humorous inventions that intentionally complicate very simple tasks like making toast or opening a door, but they can also serve as a way to practice invention and engineering skills.
A simple chain reaction for beginning designers is a door-opening machine. Start with a string tied to the doorknob and then work backwards to create a mechanism that will pull the string. One way to do this is by hanging the string over a pulley with a weight on the end, then creating a chain reaction that ends up pushing the weight off of the surface that it starts on. For added humor, create a second, almost identical machine on the other side for closing the door.
The real point of most chain reaction machines is the cleverness and engineering that goes into the chain reaction mechanism itself. The goal is just an afterthought. You can embrace this by making the machine's goal completely trivial or self-referential, like unfurling a banner or waving a flag. This could take various forms, like a flag that says "The End" or shooting a toy gun that fires a flag reading "Bang!" Take it a step further by creating a machine whose only point is to reveal signs that describe what the machine is doing as it does it.
A more complicated category of chain reaction machines automatically cooks breakfast for the user. While the reset, cleaning and maintenance process may create more effort than the machine saves, this type of machine does serve a useful purpose and can be quite exciting to create, use and show off. A simple version may simply load the toaster, while a more complicated machine could boil an egg, steep tea and spread jam on a slice of toast.
Carrying Small Objects
Chain reaction machines can also transport small objects in interesting or useful ways. Applications could include bringing the newspaper from the front door to the kitchen, moving slippers from the bedside to the easy chair and back or carrying snacks or notes from one room to another. Part of the fun of this type of machine is watching the object move through a complicated series of visually engaging steps, so include lots of variations like pulleys, bucket wheels, conveyor belts and swinging claw arms.
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