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Building Bright Ideas: Young Engineers Gather at Montshire to Make Machines

  • Caden Hutchinson, age 8 or Canaan, works on his machine.  12-1-2013 Medora Hebert

    Caden Hutchinson, age 8 or Canaan, works on his machine. 12-1-2013 Medora Hebert

  • Davis Linzell, age 8 of Concord, drills some wood for his Rube Golderg.  12-1-2013  Medora Hebert

    Davis Linzell, age 8 of Concord, drills some wood for his Rube Golderg. 12-1-2013 Medora Hebert

  • Caden Hutchinson, age 8 or Canaan, works on his machine.  12-1-2013 Medora Hebert
  • Davis Linzell, age 8 of Concord, drills some wood for his Rube Golderg.  12-1-2013  Medora Hebert

Norwich — Davis Linzell had set up shop on a table in the classroom of the Montshire Museum of Science, and on Sunday morning he spent a few minutes picking through a wildly disparate array of parts.

He grabbed a cardboard tube with a cardboard funnel affixed to it, and dropped a golf ball through the hole. He took another golf ball and placed it atop a rubber flapper from a toilet tank, moving aside an old slinky to get to it. And then Davis, 8, of Concord, picked up a large piece of paper with old blueprints on it. He turned it around to reveal drawings of his own.

They were the designs for his entry in Montshire’s Machine Madness, an event that brings together aspiring engineers from around the Twin States, all of whom build contraptions that will be linked together to form one long, multi-part machine in the tradition of engineer, author and cartoonist Rube Goldberg, who drew a series of cartoons that showed a simple task being done in a complex series of steps.

In fact, Goldberg has become so entrenched in the public consciousness that Merriam-Webster defines “Rube Goldberg” as “doing something simple in a very complicated way that is not necessary.”

At 1 p.m. next Saturday, all willing builders will meet in the museum’s community room to link the machines. An hour later, they’ll attempt their first chain reaction. On Sunday, a couple of families gathered in the museum’s classroom for a pre-building session.

“They’re interesting to build,” Davis said of the machines. “I think that if we could all build Rube Goldberg (machines), it could be really, really fun.”

Davis’ drawings were scrawled in pencil and charted a linear progression from one part of the machine to another. The first pulled string will come courtesy of whoever’s machine leads into Linzell’s. The second pulled string will lead into the next machine, creating the chain reaction.

The idea behind a Rube Goldberg machine is to complete a simple task, even if the route it takes to get there is a circuitous one. In the case of Machine Madness, the task could be anything, any combination of swinging plastic cups and Lego blocks and marbles sliding down ramps, as long as it begins and ends with that pulling of a string. Everything that happens in between is up to the kids and their parents.

“The goal is getting the family to work together,” said Mike Fenzel, the museum’s science educator and program manager.

As Davis worked on his machine at the round table, his father, Dan Linzell, drilled holes in wood a few feet away.

“He’s got a great creative mind,” Dan Linzell said, adding that his son excels in turning those creative thoughts into a “physical, tangible thing.”

On the other side of the room, Caden Hutchinson, 8, stood on a chair to reach the top of his machine. Unlike Davis, Caden, of Canaan, had visited the Montshire the past few weeks as part of an after school program, and had worked on his machine with a partner.

His was less convoluted than Davis’, but closer to completion. He had turned a wealth of K’NEX blocks, similar to Legos, into a two-rail ramp. He had also helped build a K’NEX car, whose wheels would attach to the ramp and slide down it, in the process knocking loose weights that would swing upward, revealing numbers written on cards.

Kids in the after school program, Fenzel said, worked on machines that will be placed next to each other on Saturday. When activated they will reveal numbers counting down from 10 to one.

Trish Hutchinson, Caden’s mom, said that her son has a knack for drawing plans and making things, or, in some cases, taking things apart and re-purposing their components.

“The things inside, I can make things with,” Caden said.

Beth Krusi, the Montshire’s director of marketing and communications, said that not enough young people are developing the life skills that come with time spent creatively problem solving and asking “what-if” questions.

“Those are really important questions to be asking these days,” Krusi said. Nearby, Caden steadied his K’NEX vehicle atop his ramp and Davis, holding a saw, cut into wood.

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.