Do You Know Jack?

Way back in the school year of 2000-2001 I set out with a team to build a robot. This wasn’t the first one the team had built by any means. We already had a successful robot built under my direction from the year before sitting in the back room. Two more robots that I had been part of the team for sat on display in the front of the metal shop. Robots spanning back 15 years littered the shop and storage rooms. Why did we decided to build another robot? Why not? It’s fun!

And thus, Jack was born. Over eight feet tall, around five hundred pounds, and with most of the dimensions taken directly from my own body, Jack is a mechanical copy of me. Our original concept was to have a humanoid robot that was self contained in a box which we could roll up to a power outlet, plug in, push a button, stand back, and watch the show. From there, Jack turned into a six month project with thousands of hours of student work behind his birth. Under my guidance, me and ten of my team went back to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to compete in the 2001 Society of Manufacturing Engineers International Student Challenge. We entered in the open robotics category as our robot just didn’t fit anywhere else.

Jack

We arrived a day before the contest started to allow for setup time. Our robot had just been shipped several thousand miles inside a wooden crate on the back of a semi truck. We didn’t know how good or how bad the situation would be when we cracked open the box. Luckily, the robot worked beautifully right out of the box. We powered it up once, ran it through its cycle, lubricated it, and put the box back on. Over the years of going to this and other competitions I had learned the art of showmanship well. If you leave something inside a box until the last minute, the anticipation will be so great that you’ll be the talk of the show, no matter what is actually inside.

Jack in his box.
Jack in his box.

We didn’t compete until the second day of the competition. Everyone kept asking to see inside the box but we told them all no, they’d have to wait until tomorrow. We always kept our game faces on, never revealing what was truly inside the box.

The big moment finally came. We threw off the plywood, powered Jack up, pressed the button, and stood back to let an awestruck crowd of between 500 and 1000 people stare in amazement as Jack lifted himself out of the box and demonstrated his abilities. I, being ever the showman, had hooked up a sound system to Jack to allow him to dance to some opera music. The music put it over the top. People clapped, cheered, cried out for an encore.

Jack points at the crowd.
Jack points at the crowd.

The judges were stunned. They couldn’t believe a bunch of kids between the ages of 15 and 19 had built such an amazing machine. They grilled us with hundreds of questions, trying to figure out just who must have built this for us. Finally, after a half an hour of questioning, they were convinced and very impressed. The colleges and universities at the competition were all looking a bit sheepish after they saw our product. None of their robots had any music. None of their robots danced and none of their robots even came close to Jack’s sophistication.

After the initial show, we continued to run Jack every couple of hours, always to crowds of hundreds and thunderous applause. The competition wasn’t over yet though. The awards weren’t until the next evening. For the next 24 hours we sat around, biting our nails, wondering if we had convinced the judges that Jack really was our baby, wondering if someone else would upstage us.

Douglas being interviewed in front of Jack.
Douglas being interviewed in front of Jack.

All eyes were on the awards stage. They went down the lists, naming who won what in every division. We came in first in our division, beating out several universities. They announced the fluid power award winners, we were number one. Jack was almost completely pneumatically powered which, for those non-engineers in the audience falls under the category of fluid power.

Jack in front of the judges.
Jack in front of the judges.

Finally, the big award came. Judges Choice. This award went to only one team every year for the overall best entry at the entire show. We had won it two years earlier and narrowly missed it the year before that. “And the envelope please… It’s… Jack!” The crowd went wild. I bounded up onto the stage to accept the award. We had done it. Six months of hard work finally paid off. We swept the event, picking up every single award we were eligible for. It was our day. It was Jack’s day.

Jack and the team.
Jack and the team.

2 Replies to “Do You Know Jack?”

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