A contingent of engineers and hobbyists has big plans for all those extra pumpkins that didn't find a home on Halloween. On the first weekend in November, dozens of teams are convening in Bridgeville, Del., for the annual World Championship Punkin' Chunkin', an event that puts medieval machines like catapults and trebuchets to the test to see how far that can huck a pumpkin.
The so-called "sport" of Punkin' Chunkin' challenges teams to design and build machines capable of hurling pumpkins via mechanical means to achieve the furthest distance. There are dozens of events held around the country in the fall, but the World Championship is the oldest (it was started in 1986) and largest competition (last year, there were 72 teams competing and over 20,000 attendees).
A team of engineers at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, led by David Mollenhauer, senior materials engineer at the base, takes the sport pretty seriously. Called Team ETHOS, the crew has been at its quest for six years now, having nabbed first prize in the 2009 Adult Torsion Catapult category of the competition with its Phoenix catapult, which that year pulled off a pumpkin hurl of 2,088 feet.
While other teams are more casual about their machines, sketching designs out on paper or building small-scale models, Mollenhauer's team puts its engineering prowess to work. The team leverages CAD and CAE to optimize designs for stability and performance and employs knowledge of next-generation composite materials to put a modern spin on these antique machines.
We used to have a low key punkin chunkin contest in Raleigh, North Carolina. There was usually a team of students from NC State there as well as a lot of local groups like Boy Scouts and church groups. It was great to see some raw engineering at work. The funny thing was that the college students usually used all steel construction while older groups used a lot of wood in their constructions. Engineering and designing with wood seems to be a learned task that is not taught much in school.
I likewise hope thet the Wright-Patterson team did it on their own time.
In this corner of Michigan there has been a competition that seemed a bit looser in the requirements for the launching system. The very best that I am aware of was quite a bit farther than the 2000 foot mark, somthing over three thousand feet, which was obtained by means of a fairly complex compressed air system. The very most complex setup had a secondary air insertion mechanism partway down the barrel, which overcame some of the thermodynamic limitations of the more standard approach.
My own speculation has been that some sort of mechanical launcher that used an air cylinder as the energy supply could beat a similar unit using only gravity for power. The serious problem is that compressed air can store and deliver a vast amount of energy, which in a failure mode could injure a whole lot of participants and bystanders. So while it has a tremendous potential, the compressed air approach would add enough to the safety requirements aspect to reduce the fun aspect quite a bit.
MY own, fairly safe, air launch experiments were able to deliver about a pound a distance of about 300 feet. Of course, this was from a hand-held launcher that was a lot smaller than these wonderful pumpkin launchers.
While I think the contest is more than admirable to showcase mechanical engineering ( I do love pumkin chuckin by the way). I certainly hope that the enginerring team from Wright Patterson were doing this on their own time. In this time of fiscal frugality one would hope that all federally subsidized programs would keep a short leash on their budgets to ensure no more waste is going on. At least no more than usual.
Thanks for wading in, William. It does seem like a pretty cool event and one that can showcase a lot of great engineering prowess at a variety of levels. There are grade school students, university students, hobbyists, and like this team, professional engineers, all participating in the same event. And I don't think this is the only one--there are several others held around the country.
I haven't attended an event, but I've been following this competition for a while now. It's a great time and exposes the general public to the process of engineering and use of scientific tools to solve and optimize complex problems. Now that our public maned space program has been scrapped, it's awesome that engineering gets a chance to be put on public display in such a fun, positive light.
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