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A Rube Goldberg flash of inspiration

What makes for a winning contraption? One that changes a battery in 125 steps.

Not everyone wants to build a better machine.

While efficiency is the watchword for most manufacturers, the competitors in the National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest seek out ways to make their contraptions clumsy and clanky. Rube Goldberg, of course, was a cartoonist who made an art form out of drawing whimsical, overelaborate machines such as a "simplified" pencil sharpener.

This year's contest, which took place at Purdue University over the weekend, tasked the mechanically inclined entrants to build machines that could replace the batteries in a flashlight, taking at least 20 steps to do so. That proved an easy goal for all the teams, but the winning group went well above and beyond the call of duty--their machine required 125 steps.

Top honors went to the hometown favorite Purdue engineering team, which outdid teams from six other universities to win for the third straight year. There was drama as well as complexity in the Purdue machine: It featured a rocket launch, a meteor crash and a fiery denouement. The second-place gadget, from Ferris State University, had a more happy-go-lucky carnival theme. The machines had to complete their appointed tasks twice, and teams were also judged on their creativity and their embodiment of the Rube Goldberg spirit.

"Because the machines are built out of junk, they are inherently unreliable," said Purdue co-captain Kevin Hollingsworth told the Purdue News Service. "The most important part of building a machine is making those last few pieces of junk reliable."