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This device usually consists of sequences of different objects, one triggering the action of the next. For example, several domino tiles placed upright. The first one falls and that makes all the others fall down too. The last tile releases an iron ball down a spiral whatchamacallit only to trigger the action of another piece, and so on. A friend of mine made a miniature version of something like it and we were wondering what it is called. Unfortunately, without knowing its name, I can't provide a picture.

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    First you gotta do the truffle shuffle.
    – Mazura
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 2:43
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    There is a commercial game based on this idea called Mousetrap.
    – Erik Kowal
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 8:21
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    And here is perhaps the best ever domino-effect, Rube Goldberg chain reaction machine (so everyone's happy) Youtube video
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 15:01
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    And another, this time a music video This too shall pass
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 15:24
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    Nostalgic link: The Incredible Machine
    – user100197
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 23:55

3 Answers 3

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This is called a Rube Goldberg machine.

From Wikipedia:

A Rube Goldberg machine is a contraption, invention, device or apparatus that is deliberately over-engineered or overdone to perform a very simple task in a very complicated fashion, usually including a chain reaction. The expression is named after American cartoonist and inventor Rube Goldberg (1883–1970).

An example is Goldberg's "Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin", which was later reprinted in a few book collections, including the postcard book Rube Goldberg's Inventions! and the hardcover Rube Goldberg: Inventions, both compiled by Maynard Frank Wolfe from the Rube Goldberg Archives.[3] The "Self-Operating Napkin" is activated when soup spoon (A) is raised to mouth, pulling string (B) and 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 skyrocket (K) which causes sickle (L) to cut string (M) and allow pendulum with attached napkin to swing back and forth, thereby wiping chin.

And here's one of my favorites: The machine in this Honda Commercial is all made from Honda car parts and demonstrates a high level of finesse.

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    Rube Goldberg was the American equivalent of Heath Robinson in Britain. (If you Google one, the other comes up too). We talk about a Heath Robinson contraption, a highly elaborate device constructed to do a very simple job.
    – WS2
    Commented Feb 16, 2015 at 23:55
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    superb, ingenious, the machine in the Honda Commercial.
    – Centaurus
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 0:08
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    @Centaurus If you want more videos of Rube Goldberg contraptions, you might be interested in watching Pythagora Switch.
    – Linkyu
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 12:58
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    I can see two good answers: "a Rube Goldberg machine" and "a chain reaction machine". For a site dealing with the English Language, I believe a generic term such as "chain reaction" fits better. To accept the other answer - a great answer, by the way - would make my question sound more like a quiz about physics. At least that's how I see it and what made me decide in favor of the less upvoted answer. I repeat that both are correct and good answers. Thank you Jim.
    – Centaurus
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 13:18
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    @Centaurus- No worries.
    – Jim
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 15:35
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I think you are referring to a chain reaction machine:

  • A Chain Reaction Machine uses natural forces, like gravity and elasticity, to make something happen. The chain is a series of simple devices like a pulley or some dominoes that knock into each other. The idea is to put together a few of these devices so that they go off one right after the other, like a chain reaction. Once you put the first one in motion, the rest of the machine should go by itself.

a chain reaction machine

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  • Is this what you are referring to?
    – user66974
    Commented Feb 16, 2015 at 23:30
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    I can see two good answers: "a Rube Goldberg machine" and "a chain reaction machine". For a site dealing with the English Language, I believe a generic term such as "chain reaction" fits better. To accept the other answer - a great answer, by the way - would make my question sound more like a quiz about physics. At least that's how I see it and what made me decide in favor of the less upvoted answer. I repeat that both are correct and good answers. Thank you, Josh.
    – Centaurus
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 13:17
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    Also, not to game the system or anything, but if a total of eleven people upvote Josh61's perfectly reasonable answer, Jim will get a gold badge out of the deal for Populist: "Highest scoring answer that outscored an accepted answer with score of more than 10 by more than 2x." Just saying.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 21:17
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    Heath Robinson machine and Rube Goldberg machine are not mere physics trivia. The term chain reaction machine is a great description, but as a name it has no traction whatsoever in popular use: as a description it might be understood by most, but it's not actually what they're called, as a quick look at Google ngrams confirms: books.google.com/ngrams/… Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 5:11
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    @Josh61 - You can put quotes around a specific phrase for a more accurate search, though I suspect that the image search still uses related terms. Google web search using text suggests a lot of the results are descriptive rather than nominative (that is, they are pages about Rube Goldberg machines that contain the phrase as a description) and there's also a decent number of hits from "Polymerase Chain Reaction machine". Personally, I find web search hits usually less useful in telling whether a term has currency than the n-grams, but it's arguable either way. Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 8:49
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Since the Heath Robinson and Rube Goldburg type answers have an additional implication of ridiculously or humously complicated I would like to add to the pot a "Domino Effect Machine".

The domino effect relies on a cascade of events but does not necessarily expand or run out of control which is the popular expectation of a "Chain Reaction" and may be very elegant in it's design.

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