Friday, January 6, 2012

The Golden Dumpster Award

At the Machines Behaving Badly tournament there are of course Winners and, well, parts of Losers.  So in recognition of it being a competitive world and the role of hard work and skill in attaining success, there are trophies for First, Second and Third place finishers.  You want a ribbon for just showing up, well, you've come to the wrong place.

But I have never really felt that that is all there is to this silly undertaking.  There are abilities other than simple efficiency that also need to be encouraged.

So I have an award for the Best Design.  Not necessarily the most successful one, but the most innovative.  Some people look at the world and see things other than the obvious.  We need more of this, especially in young people, who show to my thinking a surprising degree of conformity.

I also have an award for Most Determined.  It goes to the driver who fights on long after any sensible person would have surrendered.  You would be surprised how much in life can be accomplished by just not admitting defeat.  And besides, until that happy day when the Lion really does lie down with the Lamb, Civilization will continue to need a few stern jawed Second Lieutenants willing to hold Hill 346 at all costs while the rest of the army escapes.

base made from a piece of railroad steel

But these worthy awards are all, in my opinion, small spuds compared to the Schmitt Family Golden Dumpster Award.

If you had an unlimited budget to play with, a bucket 'o cash sufficient to purchase all top of the line componants and tools; I have no doubt that any kids and more than a few higher primates could build decent robots.  Now, try it with the typical school budget in these meager times.  OK, and now try it at $20 a student, which is what the class fee is for my program.  This demands economy, innovation, and creative thinking. 

My inspiration for this approach hearkens to my days building and fighting the big combat robots, back in the time of Battlebots and the midwest equivalent: Mechwars. 

One of the teams was a grey haired codger named Schmitt and his two sons.  They were brilliant.  And they were cheap.  None of their robots could cost more than a dollar a pound. Cheaper than hamburger. And this at a time when even a simple 120 pound robot could not be managed for under about $500, and there were many examples that had thousands of dollars poured into their brief, abruptly ending careers.

The Schmitts built their robots out of wood.  Not purchased wood, scrap.  Or sometimes a tree they would cut down.  Schmitt Sr. was a retired electrical engineer who worked at an auto salvage yard.  In exchange for fixing all things electronic he got run of the parts heap.  They made starter motors do some astonishing things.  The control systems and radios they built themselves out of garage door openers and door bell buttons.  We were never exactly clear what frequencies these robots ran on, but it could not be denied that they worked just fine.  And the fact that dogs howled for several miles around when they fired up their hillbilly electronics might just have been a coincidence.  The Schmitts, by the way, are the only people I have ever heard of being banned from the dumpsters behind their local Goodwill store.

The Schmitts needed washers to hold things together.  Observing that washers cost more than a penny each, they just took pennies and drilled holes in them.  But their supreme moment of frugality came when they figured out that with the exchange rate of the late 1990s, Canadian pennies were cheaper still.  So they got a hoard of them and, before it was fashionable it was "drill, baby, drill".

In keeping with the spirit of the times I annually year present The Golden Dumpster Award-crafted out of the finest refuse from my shop-and award it to the student who made the most effective use of random crap in his or her machine.

And each year when I award it, my fellow robot carny Old Man Schmitt is smiling somewhere, as I include a cash award of two Canadian pennies.
Note the Fire Extinguisher in the background.  It was always a good idea to keep one around this guy!

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