Today in History – August 19, 1934 – First All-American Soap Box Derby. This youth competition was inspired by photographer Myron Scott while he was covering a story on the soap box cars built by local boys for the Dayton Daily News. He was motivated to develop a similar program at a national scale. Not a whole lot has changed since then except that the event draws both girls and boys over a wider range of ages. The Derby has run nationally since 1934 and the World Championship finals are held each summer at Derby Downs in Akron, Ohio. The goal is to teach young people craft skills, the spirit of competition and perseverance to complete a complex project. The gravity-powered cars are required to use standardized wheels with precision ball bearings. Today, the rules allow a lot of freedom in the look of the car and its fairing. Modern cars can achieve speeds over 35 miles per hour, thus safety is a primary consideration in the design. Starting in 1993, the Derby went international with the Rally World Championship using a grand prix style competition. Laura Shepherd’s 1995 Soap Box Derby car is in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (photo, upper right).
I don’t believe that I have ever seen a wooden soap box, but they must have been an icon of the American scene at one time. Until the middle of the 20th century they were made of sturdy wood and were used after shipping for a wide range of reuse applications. I recall that politicians and preachers used to stand on a soap box as a makeshift speaking platform. A number of American inventions used them for early prototypes. For example, James Spangler made the first effective vacuum cleaner from an old fan motor attached it to a soap box stapled to a broom handle, using a pillow case as a dust collector. See my blog on the prototyping and the first vacuum cleaner patent on February 18, 1901.
I’d love it if the Soap Box Derby competition challenges today’s youth to make more sustainable automobiles for future generations. Hybrids and automobiles using alternate fuels such as solar, biofuels or hydrogen are promising directions for research and development. The solar car, human powered vehicle and supermileage vehicle engineering student competitions at universities today help students develop integrative design and team skills, as well as provide engaging examples for the next generation of engineering students.
See the Engineering Pathway’s educational resources in automotive engineering and design or prototyping. For curricular resources, visit the Mechanical Engineering Education or the Design Engineering Education community sites .