Last Tuesday afternoon, 17-year-old Tommy George dragged the remains of a Rube Goldberg machine into his teacher’s classroom. Designed and built by Tommy and the other members of his team, named “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” after the Marvel comic, it used a collection of insulation tubing, cardboard, Styrofoam, wires, and a Nerf gun to wipe a whiteboard clean. The Agents had entered it into the White Plains, New York regional division of the 2015 Rube Goldberg Machine Contest—and won first place. Between the regional, and the national competitions that happened about a month later, Tommy spent much of his time thinking about college, where he knows he wants to study chemical engineering. The funny thing is, just a few years ago, he was sure he’d grow up to be an author, or an English professor in a tweed coat.
If Tommy’s life were a Rube Goldberg machine, with each decision leading to the next in an unexpected way, it was his parents who set the ball—or the Nerf gun—firing. They did that by filling his childhood with books and frequent trips to the library. He quickly learned to love writing and reading, and managed at least a book a week as a youth. Math, by comparison, seemed so limited. “Back then, math was 2+2 and you did it as fast as you possibly can in order to get an A. I didn’t see that as the way to make something as much as writing stories, making characters.”
It was only in middle school that Tommy began to think that he might not become a writer after all. Writing just didn’t seem practical enough, he decided. But he still wanted to create. Finally, a 10th grade chemistry class showed him that science and engineering could satisfy that passion. It was the first week of chemistry class, and the teacher, John Tracey, roasted a penny and then dipped it in some acetone. The copper in the penny catalyzed a reaction between the acetone and oxygen in the air. As the acetone released heat, something strange started to happen.
“He made the penny glow,” Tommy remembers. He asked Mr. Tracey to do the trick—called Satan’s Penny—again, and directed a slew of questions at the teacher. How did he do that? What reaction was causing it to glow like the sun? Why wasn’t the penny damaged? As Tommy and his friend sat in the chemistry classroom listening to Mr. Tracey long after everyone else had left, something was ignited. “By the end of the day, I’m carting a box full of robot parts home because [Mr. Tracey] thinks I’d have fun with them.”
The machine didn’t have the superpowers to withstand a pothole on the interstate from Danbury, Connecticut.
Tommy soon got involved with the Connecticut Pre-Engineering Program, a statewide program connecting kids from both middle and high schools to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) projects and activities, like the Rube Goldberg Contest. Joining a Rube Goldberg team in his sophomore year, he learned that winning wasn’t just about the domino effect. The machine had to have a story. Since his team had an affinity for the Avengers, they decided to incorporate the powers of various characters from the comic, adding a Captain America shield and Thor’s Hammer.
The machine didn’t have the superpowers to withstand a pothole on the interstate from Danbury, Connecticut, though. When the team opened up the U-Haul carrying their machine, they found splinters and pieces everywhere. A stabilizing leg had torn off, and was shorter when they reattached it. So they went right back to work in the White Plains High School gym hosting the contest, using hot glue and spare parts—like ripped pieces of cardboard—to put their machine back together. They tested, tweaked, adjusted, and tested until finally, they were getting perfect runs back to back. You can see their competition-winning contraption in the video above.
The team’s luck didn’t hold into the Nationals, though, held in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. There, they were toppled by a machine that looked like an apple-pie-baking kitchen. But that is not the end of the road for Tommy’s Rube Goldberg enthusiasm. This summer, Tommy will be helping middle-schoolers partake in the fun by creating and making Rube Goldberg machine kits—based on parts his team used for their Avengers-themed machine.
Yvonne Bang is an assistant editor and video production manager at Nautilus.