In Grade 11, my best friends and I competed in McMaster University’s Engineering and Physics Olympics. Our event was the Mechanical Transporter, and we were a team of 4: me, Aaron, Nick and Neal. This is one of my favourite and happiest memories.
The Mechanical Transporter event was about transporting a golf ball down a ramp to a target using no mechanical parts. The ramp was 30cm high and 60cm long, so like 67cm diagonal, with a smooth metal transition from the bottom of the ramp to the floor. The target was 3m away from the base of the ramp, a small dot on the floor. You drop your transporter with the golf ball at the top of the ramp, and can’t touch it until it comes to a complete stop. You can transport the golf ball in any way you think of, except the ball cannot touch the floor, and the transporter must leave the ramp. Scoring is based on how far the center of the golf ball is from the target, as well as how close to 200g the transporter weighs. You have to drop the transporter down the ramp 3 times, and the average is your score. The lowest score wins.
Our physics teacher was really tough on marking schoolwork and a lot of other students hated him for it, but was always really excited about this yearly competition our school would compete in. My friends and I chose the Mechanical Transporter event, but there were other events like Egg Drop where you design a cage for an egg and see who can throw it the farthest without breaking the egg, or Straw Bridge where you are given a limited number of straws and have to design a bridge that holds the most weight, or Paper Boat, where you design the fastest boat made out of paper only propelled by wind (my names for these events are totally wrong btw). It’s just a really fun way to get students excited about physics and engineering. In the past our school managed to get 2nd in the Paper Boat and 4th in the Straw Bridge, or something like that.
At first, I’ll be honest, the Mechanical Transporter event made absolutely no sense for my friends and I to compete in, but it’s awesome how far we pushed ourselves for this competition. Neal and I were basically generalists. Aaron was a hard worker. Nick was very practical. No car skills between us. But the four of us went to the same elementary school, so we had lots of time to talk on the bus ride home. After school, we would meet up at Nick’s house, talk a bit, and play on his Xbox. Not a great start.
We decided to make the transporter out of balsa wood: Aaron and Nick would buy it. We were really familiar with balsa wood because of our Grade 10 science projects. The most useful property about balsa wood is that it’s really light, and we didn’t want to go over the 200g requirement. We would shave off wood if it was too heavy, and add fishing weights if it was too light. We figured out that LEGO wheels and axles were our best bet for wheels. But then realized we had no clue how to get the transporter to stop. So we used math. The ramp is about 67cm long, and then there’s 3m to the target, so we would get 367cm of string and tie it to the wheel’s axle - once it rolls that far, the string will unwind fully and stop the axle from rotating, which stops the transporter. Aaron came back the next day with an impressive looking car-shaped transporter, and we finished up our primitive brakes, weighed it to exactly 200g, and tested the brakes. We were good to go. And we even had a hole for the golf ball and a lid to cover it up so it looked even more like a car.
I was super amped up. When I was a little kid, I was in the boy scouts. I remember seeing the bigger kids race their custom-built toy racecars. They would drop the cars down a ramp, and the car that got farthest would win. The cars that won were long, bullet-shaped, and made of wood - like what we had.
We were ready. On the day of the competition, our class headed to McMaster University. Every team split up to find their assigned times. Our event was in a boiler room. We saw the first couple of participants and they didn’t do well, but there was a camera crew with a gigantic camera interviewing them. Wow, we could be on television.
Soon, our turn was up.
We got to the ramp - wow it wasn’t what we expected, much wider. From the top, the target was hard to see - how would we get the car to straight to the target? We weighed the transporter and already hit our first hiccup - the ball must be visible at all times, meaning our lid was useless, and our transporter’s weight was wrong. Aaron took our transporter to the top of the ramp, aimed at the target, and let go. It went smoothly down the ramp. Where the ramp meets the floor, it all goes wrong. The transporter pulled to the left immediately. And kept going left. And left. And then the brakes worked. And it stopped. 70cm from the target. Again. 80cm. Again. 110cm. Same problem. We weren’t even close.
I don’t remember what happened after that. It was awful.
I have no clue how well we did. We were too embarrassed to hear the results. And that was that.
One year later, we tried again. Grade 12. We wanted to avenge our failure from last year and make it down the ramp this time. We didn’t want to make the same mistakes as last time.
We scrapped the car design. It only needs to transport a golf ball, so that’s all it will do. Instead of a car, the transporter would be 4 pieces of balsa wood arranged in a large rectangle. We got larger LEGO wheels and axles to make it more stable and attached it to the front and back. Nick had a random golf ball lying around we could test with. We made a v-shaped recess with a couple pieces of wood in the middle of the transporter for the golf ball. Aaron and Nick visited the carpentry shop at our school and built a 60x30cm wooden ramp to test the transporter with. I remember that we used a university application for the ramp’s transition to the floor. We added a piece of wood to the middle front and middle back of the transporter for aiming the cart down the ramp. For the brakes, instead of tying string to a stick, we used a spool meant for thread. To get the distance right, we would wind the cart by placing it at the starting position and rolling it to the top of the ramp. Nick had a very sensitive scale, so we got the weight was close enough to 200.00g by using superglue for more weight. And then Nick had the great idea of using WD-40 on the wheels to spin better.
For every problem we encountered last year, we had an answer.
Our first test run? Straight down the ramp, stopping almost exactly where we wanted it to. Was it good enough? We didn’t know because we skipped the ceremony, but getting close to the target was enough for us.
We put the transporter in a shoe box with a bunch of padding so nothing would happen to it on the way to the competition. It was time.
Same deal as last time. Same location. Same ramp. Our turn.
We weighed the transporter. 200.0g on the dot. Our scale was even more accurate than theirs.
Aaron would do the dropping at the top of the ramp, I would help with the targeting at the bottom. We brought a laser pointer to help out a bit. We wound up the brake system from the target. We aimed one last time. Aaron let go.
It went straight down the ramp, transitioned cleanly onto the floor, and rolled up to the target right on the dot. And then the brakes came in and stopped the transporter in its place. The golf ball rolled a bit and then settled. The judges took the measurement. 1.5cm. 1.5cm from the dot. The four of us yelled. Our physics teacher yelled. We had 2 more runs. 4.1cm. I aimed a bit too far right. 2.4cm. Close enough.
We absolutely crushed our performance last year. It was exhilarating.
We left feeling really proud of ourselves, and stood outside watching a couple of other trials. Someone managed to get 3.0cm, so we were probably not going to win. They would announce the results at the end of the day, so we had the next couple hours to ourselves.
Later that day, we managed to find some other teams at our school and headed back to where they would announce the winners. The Paper Boat team got 4th place again.
“Mechanical Transporter event. First place: West Hill Colleg-“
All I can remember is screaming with everyone else from my school. I don’t think I’ve ever screamed as hard and happily before. The announcer had to ask us to calm down so they could announce the 2nd and 3rd place winners. The 4 of us high-fived. Our physics professor had a crazy smile on his face, and gave us all the hardest handshake I’ve felt. And then we high-fived the rest of our class. A year of failure redeemed. And a huge sigh of relief. We did it.