Why I hate Rube Goldberg Machines

You might not know them by name, but you know the idea and have seen the movies – Rube Goldberg machines serve a trivial purpose that but are stupendously overcomplicated. A classic is the Honda Cog advert – a machine for unveiling a banner. It goes like this:

And, for those who have stockpiled too much toilet paper, there’s this lockdown version for delivering hand sanitizer:

What do I hate about them?

Well, actually I love the machines, but I hate all those movies. The reason is that they give you all of the ‘wow’, ‘this is cool’, with none of the hard work. And I mean hard work. Hours of it. Weeks of it or longer for some of the more impressive ones. They skip out the try, fail, modify, try, fail, modify, try, fail, modify, try, fail, modify……[skip over a few days], try, fail, modify, try, fail, modify… well, you get the idea. These things take extreme perseverance, and that is missing from the video.

Now, imagine you’ve got a seven your old in the house who sees these videos and wants to make one. The messages “this is going to take some time” and “you are going to fail a lot” and “by a lot I mean a lot” and “please don’t start ten minutes before bedtime” don’t sink in. You can see the recipe for simmering frustration and then disaster here. The seven year old expects he can get something like the toilet roll machine working in half an afternoon.

Oh, and throw into the mix a two-year old who is keen to help.

There is a serious point here. The easy access we all have to a diet of whizz-bang stuff means that we expect this to be the norm in life. We expect to succeed with no effort at all. Have a problem? Just Google it. Want to go on holiday somewhere? Just buy a ticket (add it to your loan) and jump on a plane [okay, this one is on hold for now]. Need a degree? Just get someone to do it for you.

Some things, however, like the toilet-roll machine, and scientific research, take time, effort, and lots of failures.

If you want to be a scientist, you need to learn patience and perseverance. If nothing else, I hope that COVID-19 will teach us just those things.

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