"Gentlemen, wind your machines!"
With these words, in an atmosphere as taut as the rubber bands that propelled their thingamajigs, Caltech students plunged headlong into yet another ritual that is hard for almost anyone else to understand.
In this case it was the second annual Caltech Hill Climb, wherein small cars and rocket-like gadgets are to get from one end of a 16-foot track to the other end without falling off.
With all the intensity of entrants in the Indy 500, students in Mechanical Engineering 72a geared up for the race that would serve as their final exam.
Baxter Auditorium was filled last week with the race track, judges, scorekeepers, class members, parents, photographers and assorted geniuses as the teacher, Eric Antonsson, called out the countdown.
Vehicles Made of 'Junk'
Right up to the wire, students fussed over the little vehicles that each had made from a bag of what Antonsson called "junk." He had given them identical materials--odds and ends of Plexiglas, bushings, tubing, ball bearings, rods, nuts, washers, springs, dowels, with which to make "a device to combine speed and precision to out-perform an opponent device."
The students constructed a variety of vehicles and catapults that had to deliver a payload from a starting pin over a straight track, over a bump about four inches high, and then come to full stop without running off the end of the track or over the side.
The vehicles turned out to be highly personal affairs, nurtured like babies by their creators. There were intricate four-wheel miniature autos, a bean-bag-looking thing that plopped far short of its destination and even a paper plane of the variety kids hurl across classrooms.
It was immediately clear that a lot more was going on than a race of homemade vehicles or a final exam.
In the spirit of all those who made Senior Ditch Day famous with their outrageous pranks, students gave their all to a race that had a life span of about 10 seconds.
Like Caltech students through the ages--from Nobel Prize winners like Linus Pauling to the two seniors who in 1984 changed the Rose Bowl scoreboard to show Caltech beating MIT--their intellect and energy took them far beyond course requirements, human endurance and anyone's imagination.
In the end, Will Slate, 20, a junior from Sudbury, Mass., won with a car made with Masonite wheels, springs from a computer keyboard and a complicated negator spring that he made from the junk, and constructed during "at least half of my waking hours for at least four weeks."
In the final runoff, Slate beat Tom Rathjen, 21, a senior from Torrance, whose Plexiglas vehicle was the product of "at least 20 hours a week for the past five weeks." Rathjen machine-tooled every piece of his four-wheeler.
There was a big cheer for Sean Wakayama, 19, of Hawaii, whose catapult device was hailed as "a moral victory" even though it failed to finish the
course satisfactorily. Wakayama had been up all night, shooting it "dozens of times, maybe hundreds."
Knocked out of the winner's circle in the semifinals, Nicole Vogt, 19, of Pasadena, a junior majoring in cosmic ray physics, was visibly upset when the product of her hours of work fell off the track and out of the running.
Vogt, however, echoed the sentiment that the other students expressed in one way or another:
"What you learn here is the difference between theory and reality."
A cheerful John Kubodera, 19, of Hawaii, whose "cube full of junk" wouldn't fly, said, "What you design, you can't always create. Some things are just not feasible in practice that work out in theory."
Amid the cheers and tears of the second annual Caltech Hill Climb, Antonsson said, "I want to remind you students: The outcome of the contest is not what your grade is. Sometimes losing is almost as good as winning."
"That's the part I don't get," grumbled a tired young man as he left the auditorium stroking the vehicle he'd worked on for a month.