Going for the Gourd

The good news was that the Pumpkin Satellite Project had just launched a one-gallon jug of water approximately twenty yards through the air -- not a winning distance, certainly, but respectable for an early simulation of what might happen if you put a pumpkin in its place. The bad news, and particularly vexing from an engineering standpoint, was that the milk jug was flung in the exact opposite direction of the designated landing field. It exploded just inches from a Mercury SUV parked in territory previously designated as safe, and a few feet short of Chambers Road, packed with mid-Saturday-morning bustle.

"Um, what's up with the negative fifty feet?" asks team member Andrea Sumption.

"We just weren't sure which direction we were supposed to be firing," replies Laurie Thompson. "It's not as bad as last night. Then we had a contact failure. The machine basically broke in half."

There was some pressure to make a successful repair: This is PSP's second year in the Pumpkin Toss, the most popular component of Aurora's annual Pumpkin Fest, and last year, the team, based loosely around the Thompson family of south Denver, had landed in second place after a hasty design-and-construction phase fueled by a sense of sober desperation.

"We used to drink together," Laurie explains. "But then we stopped. We had to find something to do, so..."

"It might not be a bad idea to start again," suggests Ken Thompson, who, Laurie points out, was the one figuratively and literally wearing the engineering pants: tan Dockers. "The rest of us just screw, beat and clamp," she says. "Except for Kirk. He's the gravity clamp."

The official competition is only moments away, so Ken gets to work on the minor alteration he insists will guarantee that the pumpkin is shot 180 degrees away from the previous effort.

Mark Votodian's Cub Scout Pack 650 is set up next door to the Pumpkin Satellite Project, whose repairs he eyes anxiously. "I'm a little nervous," he admits. "But I'm very confident of our own machine. I definitely think it will launch that way," he says, pointing away from the road and toward the field of play.

"Our troop got involved because there is a badge for engineering, in which the kids are specifically supposed to design a catapult," he continues. "But that was too easy. So we built the trebuchet instead."

"I just went on the Internet," explains Bruce Kraemer, chief engineer for the scouts. "I looked under 'nuclear weapons,' subcategory 'medieval.' It's easy to find."

The contest is no joke over at the launcher designed by employees of TDK Engineering. "We're software engineers in real life," says Kevin 'The Bruce' Klimczak, who's dressed in Scottish Highlander togs. "We design missile defense systems. This is a chance to go to the other side." Thanks to exhaustive computer modeling, TDK's machine has achieved maximum reliability. "Once we get locked onto a particular position, we're very repeatable," he notes.

But not very durable. On the third official toss of the competition, the team's trebuchet tips over backward and suffers catastrophic structural injury. "It snapped like toothpicks," says Jan Barglowski, another TDK designer. "It was cool."

Indeed, it is instructive to remember that mistakes do get made, even when the best of scientists gather. (See, for example, the Challenger disaster.) So it is understandable that no one could possibly anticipate the failure of the catapult arm joint on the Braveheart Brothers/Gateway Rotary team machine. Even so, the bloody head wound surprises just about everyone.

If there is something that the put-upon Columbine High School non-jocks need to know, it is this: Someday -- and sooner rather than later -- all of the popular, fit and attractive athletes now shoving you around are going to be overweight also-rans. While they struggle to maintain their self-confidence with blustery recollection, the engineers and the rest of you nerds shall inherit the earth, and the crowds shall form around you and observe your competitions of brains and humor and applaud you loudly.

And you will look them in the eye and say, "Now tell me: Would you rather have been able to throw a football fifty yards yesterday, or design a machine today that will propel a pumpkin four-fifths of a mile?"

"We are the same guys who used to be in the chess club and on the debate team in high school," confirms William Llewellin, a member of team NASA -- National Association of Squash Artillery. "But now we have big motorcycles and high-powered firearms. And all the guys who used to play football are large and slower-moving. Some have even moved up to construction foremen."

At the DeLaney Urban Farm this October Saturday, it is obvious who's really worth watching. While dozens of college football games rage across the country (University of Colorado loses again, and who really cares?), several hundred people gather on an Aurora field to celebrate the mechanical and the macho, mind-over-muscle division.

And they're rewarded with, well, squash propelled many, many feet. Yet as anyone who has constructed a potato gun, lighter-fluid-fueled tennis-ball cannon, giant slingshot or model rocket can tell you, these are extremely gratifying pursuits.

"It was too much like big boy toys to pass up," says Llewellin. "This is the revenge of the nerds, for sure."

The sport of pumpkin-tossing didn't start off that way. In 1986, a group of guys in Delaware decided to see who could build a machine that would toss a ten-pound pumpkin the farthest. The winning chunk (the technical verb for pumpkin-launching) carried a whopping 186 feet. The contest was so much fun that the same guys staged it the next year, too. Since then, pumpkin-propelling has become so popular that 10,000 spectators show up at the Delaware event each year, and the Pumpkin Chunkin' Championships is now run by the local chamber of commerce.

In keeping with the low-tech, medieval spirit of the sport, the winners in those early days tended to rely on ancient proven technology -- catapults, giant slingshots and trebuchets, which use a weight/fulcrum setup to send the pumpkin flying. (Think of the circus act where one guy jumps on the teeter-totter and the guy on the other end flies up in the air.) But projectile projects anywhere tend to attract a disproportionate number of geeks, and geeks tend to be smart, and so the contest quickly grew in complexity. In the late '80s and early '90s, centrifugal machines ruled. These generally featured steroid-laced Ferris wheel-like contraptions, which spun faster and faster until a trap door suddenly opened and released the pumpkin into the air. Some of the gourds flew as far as 800 feet.

That was merely a stage, however, and in 1994, the first pneumatic gun (explosives are prohibited), the "Universal Soldier," made its appearance. It was mounted on an old station wagon body, which in turn was perched on a 3/4-ton truck chassis. Its 22-foot barrel was painted in camouflage, and it could launch a pumpkin nearly half a mile. Its appearance heralded a paradigm shift in pumpkin displacement.

Although no real technological breakthroughs have been reported since, engineers have spent plenty of hours fine-tuning and adjusting, and in 1998 the Aludium Q36 Pumpkin Modulator, an air gun out of central Illinois, discharged a ten-pound spherical squash a prodigious 4,026 feet -- about four-fifths of a mile. The mark still stands as the record for long-distance pumpkin-chunkin'.

In fact, last year's contest (the 2000 edition is set for next week) marked the first time in the history of the Delaware event that the winning mark did not surpass the previous year's, and among enthusiasts there is hushed talk that the sport may have peaked, particularly in regard to a gourd's structural integrity. In 1998, for instance, a controversy raged at the nationals after a pneumatic gun blasted a pumpkin several thousand feet, and the shot was disqualified when chunkin' officials reported seeing the pumpkin disintegrate at launch: Rules require the gourd to remain in one piece prior to touchdown.

One man, however, discovered that a photograph he'd taken of the blast clearly showed the pumpkin intact -- a revelation he claimed was met with ominous disinterest. "When I returned with the picture, I was told to tear the picture up and tell everyone that it had not turned out," he wrote in an account of the fiasco. "When I refused, I was told I 'better watch' my 'back' when I come back in the area, and then I was called a communist."

The nerdiest of the teams to show up in Aurora is NASA, an arm of the Denver Mad Scientists Club, whose only requirement for membership is a lab coat. Still, most members sport more evolved qualifications; the group is made up mostly of engineers and other advanced-degree scientists who share a healthy interest in explosives in general, and firearms in particular. "Most of us are gun nuts," admits Jean Broida, the club's president.

"I started with a single black-powder muzzle-loader," says Justin Matlock. "But then I wanted more, so I began going to scrapyards looking for stuff. Which is where I found my cannon barrel." The 80-millimeter gun is still a big hit at the Wildlife Hunters Association of Colorado shooting range, outside of Watkins, where Matlock impresses onlookers by shooting cement-filled cans of Alpo dog food 500 yards through cars.

"But not all of us are gun nuts," insists Aviva Weller, a molecular biologist. "There's kind of a split in the club: projectiles versus the Critter Crunch." That's the annual competition started by the club about fifteen years ago, which pits small handmade robots against each other in lethal combat. The winner is the machine still running.

The focus at the Pumpkin Fest, of course, is projectiles, and so during the past year, the Mad Scientists Club designed and built Johnny Pumpkinseed, a state-of-the-art pneumatic gun. While the slingshots battled to fling their squashes to places ever more distant, NASA's biggest technical hurdle was ratcheting back its machine's capability.

Several weeks ago, the club towed the gun up to the WHAC shooting range for a tryout. It performed outstandingly, launching a pumpkin just over a half mile and leaving a deep impact crater where the gourd eventually landed. Everyone agreed it was a very satisfying toss.

Unfortunately, the limit of the DeLaney range is a compact 1,000 feet, so NASA reluctantly decreased the gun's air pressure. Not enough, though, and the first test shot easily cleared the range, soared over a small grove of trees and landed on a not-so-nearby driving range. "The greenskeeper was cool," says Bill Lemieux, a founding member of the club and its chief designer. "And the golfers kind of liked it."

Eventually, the scientists managed to throttle back the gun appropriately, and by contest time, their pumpkins are landing on the designated range. Still, Denver Recycles, the sponsor of the event, doesn't seem quite sure what to do with NASA, and so first place is awarded to Caveman.com's giant slingshot and its surgical-tube-powered hurl of 519 feet. "We were just looking for some bragging rights," sighs Llewellin.

But in the end, the geeks get those, too. A member of the Mad Scientists Club, an emergency medical technician as well as an engineer, is the first to help out when a member of the Gateway Rotary team suffers the event's only blood injury.

"We had tried to extend the [catapult] arm, but the joint broke, and it flew back and hit one of our guys in the top of the head," says Gateway team captain Butch Shoup. "We're going to try a different design next year."


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