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Soap Challenge

STEP BY STEP Here are Rube Goldberg’s instructions for his Self Operating Napkin: “As you raise SPOON OF SOUP (A) to your mouth it pulls STRING (B), thereby jerking LADLE (C) which throws CRACKER (D) past PARROT (E). Parrot jumps after cracker and PERCH (F) tilts, upsetting SEEDS (G) into PAIL (H). Extra weight in pail pulls CORD (I) which opens and lights automatic cigar LIGHTER (J), setting off SKY-ROCKET (K) which causes SICKLE (L) to cut STRING (M) and allow pendulum with attached napkin to swing back and forth thereby wiping off your chin.” COURTESY RUBE GOLDBERG INC.

Handwashing just got competitive. Jennifer George has issued a challenge: Find a creative way to drop a bar of soap into someone’s hand. The catch? Participants must do so in 10 to 20 steps by creating their own Rube Goldberg machine.

“A Rube Goldberg machine is a ridiculously complicated contraption that, in the end, does a very simple task,” George told TIME for Kids. In addition to being Rube Goldberg’s granddaughter, she’s the legacy director of Rube Goldberg Inc.

The Man, the Legend

Rube Goldberg was an inventor and a Pulitzer Prize–winning newspaper cartoonist who was born in 1883. He drew about 50,000 cartoons in his career. He also liked eating giant bowls of whipped cream, and wore shoes while swimming.

Goldberg is best known for his humorous drawings of elaborate devices, such as a self-operating napkin and an automatic back-scratcher. He “trained as an engineer,” George says. “So the way he thought would creep into his art.”

FUN AND GAMES Rube Goldberg drew wacky contraptions consisting of everyday objects.


Today, there are lots of videos of Rube Goldberg machines posted on YouTube. A famous one from 2010, by the music group OK Go, has nearly 65 million views. It features a chain reaction nearly four minutes long that includes a smashed television and a dropped piano. According to George, it took the crew 87 tries to get it right.

Challenge Accepted

Rube Goldberg competitions have been held for students since 1988. But this year, plans changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “It dawned on me that parents and kids are suddenly at home with all this time on their hands,” George says.

So the Rube Goldberg Bar of Soap Video Challenge was born. To enter, contestants need to create an unedited video of their machine. The video must show every step in the process, and the squeaky-clean finale should feature a bar of soap dropping into a person’s hand. Submissions are due by May 31.

Goldberg made a career of drawing complicated inventions. But here’s a surprising fact: He never actually built them. “I think he would be really amused that we’re all sitting here now trying to build these machines in his name,” George says.