IDEA #73. Think of some silly—or important, even—task that you have to do and then build a “machine” out of junk and duct tape (or other cheap and easy-to-find materials) that performs the task. You can decide to make the machine beautiful and well-crafted, or you can decide to make it utterly ridiculous—the more duct tape, the better!
The cartoonist Rube Goldberg was famous for designing “machines” of absurd complexity that accomplished everyday tasks, and today there is a rich tradition in both engineering and design in using unlikely materials and over-engineering to create simple machines—usually in fact a combination of the classical simple machines (inclined plane, wheel and axle, pulley, wedge, screw, and lever)—to do things that are either necessary and useful or in fact totally useless.
No material has lent itself more to the uses of amateur inventors and engineers than duct tape, the ubiquitous silver-gray fabric-based tape that seems to stick to everything, especially itself, and that has famously been reported to have been used to perform emergency repairs on everything from shoes to airplanes. A pair of good scissors, some sacrificial cardboard boxes and a few sticks of wood are all the raw materials a young engineer might need to create almost anything; if other materials are also at hand, even Rube Goldberg’s creations might only be a starting point.
This is the unlikely time to introduce to the youngster the concept of scientific elegance. Some engineers are naturally tidy in their work and have an inborn sense to design that makes everything they produce look somehow elegant—simple, clean-lined, neatly made. Elegant solutions in science, engineering, and mathematics combine simplicity and grace, without extraneous elements, and the quest for elegance in an activity like this reduces the Rube Goldberg aspects to a bare minimum.
On the other hand, there is an exuberance in recognizing that anything made primarily of scrap and duct tape is in itself likely to be a assemblage of casually combined and inelegantly put together pieces, and that therefore a certain amount of extraneity is to be welcomed and even sought. Why not make the thing as baroque as possible, with added elements that have nothing to do with function but add whimsy to the form? If the object reminds one a bit of a rabbit, why not add long ears, whiskers, and a cotton tail?
This activity is about invention, but above all it is about allowing imagination and inclination to run a little wild. Elegant or not, the duct tape invention is part of great way to explore how things work and how they go together—learning a bit of physics and industrial design along the way.