Montana State University

Alarm clocks meet sad end at MSU competition

November 29, 2006 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service

Utilizing a baseball bat, bowling ball, bicycle wheel and the violent chemical reaction between Mentos candy and Diet Coke, "The Fresh Maker" won most innovative design in Montana State University's first "Rube Goldberg Machine" contest, where students were challenged to create the most complicated device for shutting off an alarm clock. (MSU photo by Tracy Ellig.)    High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
Engineering professor Robb Larson wanted the seniors and freshmen in his class to work together. So he had them take arms against a common college student enemy: the annoying beeping of an alarm clock.

Larson's instructions: Build an impractically complicated device to turn off the alarm. His most important rule: The clock need not remain functional after the alarm is silenced.

When nine mixed teams of seniors and freshman - all mechanical engineering technology students at Montana State University - showed up for competition on Tuesday in MSU's Student Union Building, spectators realized the teams had taken Larson's rule to heart.

The device nicknamed "The Rusty Bull" was going to drown a clock. The team that built "Spiked" planned to crush its clock with a large gym weight. Another team planned to cleave their clock with a double-bladed ax -- the name of their device may not be suitable for the gentle readers of a family newspaper.

Entries would be given one point for each step their device took and 10 points if it actually shut off an alarm.

The double-bladed ax team's design went something like this: A CD disc drive with a razor attached to its disc tray closes, cutting a taut fishing line that releases a catapult, which hurls a bolt into a wide-mouth funnel. The bolt falls through the funnel and onto the trip-plate of a rusted gopher trap. The trap snaps shut, tugging a string tied to the trigger of an air gun, which fires a ball at the trip-plate of another rusted gopher trap. The second trap snaps shut, pulling another string that triggers a mouse trap, which tugs at another string pulling the switch to a remote controlled toy truck, which whines to life, pulls the final cord releasing a spring-powered double bladed ax that swiftly arcs through the air and violently, and shockingly, silences an alarm clock. Forever.

At least that's how it was supposed to work.

"A lot of what this was about was anticipating what can go wrong," said senior Joe Kostelnik of Fort Benton.

Kostelnik and the rest of the team had been up until 11 p.m. the night before perfecting their design: seniors Geoff Dowell of Scobey; Tim Wheatley of Bozeman; and freshman Kyle Knaff of Sidney; Ty Clemens of Belgrade and Colin Shane of Lake Tahoe, Calif.

"We still have all our fingers," Dowell said.

Unfortunately, when it came time for the device to be set in motion for the judges, it failed. The crowd, however, still wanted a show. So the team coaxed the machine into action: the axe swung, the crowd gasped appreciatively, and the clock was no more.

In all, only two of the nine devices - with their crazy assemblages of toy crossbows, skateboards, bowling balls, LEGOs, dental floss, scrap lumber, razor blades, hockey pucks and other debris from student life - managed to shut off the clocks.

The winner was "Chaos," built by seniors Wes Horton, Aaron Love, John Zabrocki and freshmen Harrison Fuson, Cody McLean and Eric Tao.

Larson had three other awards: the Einstein award for most creative design regardless of whether the device worked or not, which went to "The Fresh Maker" for its incorporation of the violent chemical reaction between Mentos candy and Diet Coke. Team members included seniors Brandon Cox, John Kostelnik and Chad Wagenhals, with freshmen Joe Candrian, Joshua Keller and Brent Scott.

Then there was the Paper Bag award for the ugliest device and the Bad Dog award for the least successful design - both of which were won by the double-bladed ax team.

"There was just enough chaos to be fun," Larson said.

Contact: Robb Larson, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering,, (406) 994-6420.