Lessons from last years t-shirt contest entrants

Last years t-shirt contest entrants are pretty interesting to look at as a group to reflect on what they say about engineering in general.

In third place were the "Caffeinators" and their calibrated crossbow/slingshot. From an engineering point of view it was the simplest: a big elastic cord and a wooden frame. Nothing fancy. Nothing to break down. Simple to operate. While they came in last, they managed to fling more t-shirts to the audience than either of the other entrants. By a wide margin. Easily the most effective t-shirt distribution mechanism of the lot.

In second place was a very impressive cannon from Ron Hughes and the folks from Visicomp, who make some killer developer tools. Their cannon was an absolute engineering marvel. Automated azimuth and elevation. Remote firing over the web. Calibrated gas pressure for range control. Beautifully machined. But it took longer to reload than the slingshot. And it was really powerful. Far too powerful for the folks responsible for the safety of the audience: they had Ron throttle back the tank pressure significantly. Ron did get in a little fun: at the end of his turn on stage, he removed the pressure limiter and we fired off one shirt at full pressure. Not many people in the audience noticed, but it was pretty impressive: the shirt went way past the last row in the audience... It's trajectory had hardly started to curve when it ricocheted off the concrete wall way at the back of the very large hall that the keynotes were held in.

The winner was a real contraption: a bicyle-built-for-two with no wheels, connected to a flywheel that functioned like a baseball pitching machine. The gizmo has a "magazine" that allows many rolled-up t-shirts to be stacked up and released in quick succession. A "machine-gun" for t-shirts. When it worked properly, it hurled t-shirts a great distance. But... It really was a Rub-Goldberg-esque contraption. A hack in the best sense of the word. As such, it had more than a few reliability problems. When the time came for it to perform, it's drive chain broke after only 3 shirts were launched. But the audience loved it anyway.

Each of these could have won if the criteria were chosen appropriately: the crossbow would have won on the basis of shirts actually delivered. The canon would have won based on range and engineering excellence. The third could have won on launch rate, if only it hadn't broken... In the end, the audience chose based on whatever moved each individual in the audience.

June 17, 2005