RALEIGH, N.C. – When John Cornwell graduated from Duke University last year, he landed a job as software engineer in Atlanta but soon found himself longing for his college lifestyle.
So the engineering graduate built himself a reminder of life on campus: a refrigerator that can toss a can of beer to his couch with the click of a remote control.
"I conceived it right after I got out," said Cornwell, a May 2006 graduate from Huntington, N.Y. "I missed the college scene. It embodies the college spirit that I didn't want to let go of."
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It took the 22-year-old Cornwell about 150 hours and $400 in parts to modify a mini-fridge common to many college dorm rooms into the beer-tossing contraption, which can launch 10 cans of beer from its magazine before needing a reload.
With a click of the remote, fashioned from a car's keyless entry device, a small elevator inside the refrigerator lifts a beer can through a hole and loads it into the fridge's catapult arm.
A second click fires the device, tossing the beer up to 20 feet — "far enough to get to the couch," he said.
Is there a foam explosion when the can is opened? Not if the recipient uses "soft hands" to cradle the can when caught, Cornwell said.
In developing his beer catapult, Cornwell said he dented a few walls and came close to accidentally throwing a can through his television.
He's since fine-tuned the machine to land a beer where he usually sits at home, on what he called "a right-angle couch system."
For now, the machine throws only cans, although Cornwell has thought about making a version that can throw a bottle. The most beer he has run through the machine was at a party, when he launched a couple of 24-can cases.
"I did launch a lot watching the Super Bowl," he said. "My friends are the reason I built it. I told them about the idea and hyped it so much and I had to go through with it."
A video featuring the device is a hit on the Internet, where more than 600,000 people have watched it at metacafe.com, earning Cornwell more than $3,000 from the Web site.
Cornwell said he has talked to a brewing company about the machine, but right now only one exists. Asked if he might start building some for sale, he said: "I'm keeping that option open, depending on interest."
When Cornwell was a student at Duke — an elite, private university in Durham — he participated in the engineering school's robotic basketball contests, said mechanical engineering Professor Bob Kielb. He said students tried to build a robot that could retrieve a pingpong ball and toss it into a small hoop.
"He always did well in it," Kielb said. "He came up with completely unique ideas."