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JPL Annual Invention Challenge - Background
By JPL Engineer Paul MacNeal

In December of 1996, Bill McCown held his Annual Paper Airplane Contest down in the patio next to Building 301. The event was usually held on the last day before Christmas vacation and was attended by 50 100 employees and friends that knew about the event from "word-of-mouth" and from previous years of holding the contest. I personally found it to be a lot of fun and tried to enter (or at least watch) every year. Bill left the lab in 1997 and there was no Paper Airplane Contest in December of 1997.

In the spring semester of 1998, my sons science teacher proposed a weekend project for extra credit. The project was to create a balloon powered car using one or two balloons handed out by the teacher. David came to me and asked for some ideas. Together we worked on the project that he turned in that Monday. He says that his car went farther than anyone elses car in the class and he received an A+ for his efforts. The teacher kept his car to show other students (and in fact we never did see it again).

That summer I decided to see what it would take to hold an outdoors contest open to everyone (and their families) on the lab. My main goal was allow the children of JPL employees to see that engineering and science can be fun. My enthusiasm was tempered when I began to address all the issues for holding a public event on JPL property. Fortunately, my determination to hold the contest was strong, and finally I made the announcement for the contest to the lab. The resulting "Balloon Car Contest" ( held in December 1998 was very well attended by over 200 employees, contractors, and family members. Based on the results of that years contest, I decided to hold another competition the following year. I realized that another Balloon Car Contest could get quite boring, (people would try to copy the winning designs) so I decided to change the rules and have a different competition altogether. This years Footbag Toss for Accuracy Contest showed the inventiveness of our JPL community once again. Next years contest (completely different again) is already in the planning stages.

Why Should JPL have an Invention Challenge Competition?

I still feel that it is important to show children and young adults that engineering and science can be fun. It is also important to show ourselves that we can have fun while still holding our regular jobs. I plan on running this annual event until it no longer holds anyones interest. I hope that time never comes.

-Paul MacNeal

Comments from contestants:

"I just wanted to thank you for holding this contest. This was the first time that my brother-in-laws family and our family ever worked together on anything. It really brought us closer together."

Congratulations on another great contest! I can't wait until next year, when you and I will probably duke it out for last place again. I don't know about you, but I've never had more fun in my life. Special kudos to you, the folks who helped you with the contest, and Alice and the others in the Technology Outreach Project who put the web site together. (Thanks for the great photos!)

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