Useless machine

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A useless machine is a device that performs a mostly useless task, such as switching itself off, and performs no other practical function. Such a device may be a novelty toy, an amusing engineering "hack", or the focus of an existentialist philosophical discussion.


In its modern form, the useless machine appears to have been invented by MIT professor (now emeritus) and artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, while he was a graduate student at Bell Labs in 1952.[1] Minsky dubbed his invention the "ultimate machine", but that sense of the term did not catch on.[1] The device has also been called the "Leave Me Alone Box".[2]

Minsky's mentor at Bell Labs, information theory pioneer Claude Shannon (who later also became an MIT professor), made his own versions of the machine. He kept one on his desk, where science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke saw it. Clarke later wrote, "There is something unspeakably sinister about a machine that does nothing—absolutely nothing—except switch itself off", and he was fascinated by the concept.[1]

Minsky also invented a "gravity machine" that would ring a bell if the gravitational constant were to change, a theoretical possibility that is not expected to occur in the foreseeable future.[1]

Commercial products[edit]

In the 1960s, a novelty toy maker called "Captain Co." sold a "Monster Inside the Black Box", featuring a mechanical hand that emerged from a featureless plastic black box and flipped a toggle switch, turning itself off. This version may have been inspired in part by "Thing", the disembodied hand featured in the television sitcom The Addams Family.[1] Other versions have been produced.[3] In their conceptually purest form, these machines do nothing except to switch themselves off.

A closely related design is a coin snatching black box machine called "The Thing". It activates when a conductive metal coin is placed in a holder. The box begins to whir and vibrate, then a small plastic hand slowly emerges from under a trapdoor. The hand snatches the coin, pulls it in, and slams the door shut, ending the performance. It can be argued that this machine is not strictly useless, acting as a type of piggy bank, but it is significantly more complex than needed for that basic function.

Both the plain black box and the bank version were widely sold by Spencer Gifts, and appeared in its mail-order catalogs through the 1960s and early 1970s. It is claimed that Don Poynter, who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 1949 and founded Poynter Products, Inc., first produced and sold the "Little Black Box", which simply switched itself off. He then added the coin snatching feature, dubbed his invention "The Thing", arranged licensing with the producers of the television show, The Addams Family, and later sold "Uncle Fester's Mystery Light Bulb" as another show spinoff product.[4][5] Robert J. Whiteman, owner and president of Liberty Library Corporation, also claims credit for developing "The Thing".[6][7] (Both companies were later to be co-defendants in landmark litigation initiated by Theodor Geisel ("Dr. Seuss") over copyright issues related to figurines).[8][4]

As of 2015, a version of the coin snatching black box is being sold as the "Black Box Money Trap Bank" or "Black Box Bank".

Do-it-yourself versions of the useless machine (often modernized with microprocessor controls) have been featured in a number of web videos.[9] As of 2015, there are several completed or kit form devices being offered for sale.[10]

Conceptual significance[edit]

Columbia University professor Lydia H. Liu wrote in her 2010 book The Freudian Robot that the useless machine reflects an "intuitive grasp of a fundamental problem of the unconscious that Freud has termed the death drive."[1]

Appearances in popular culture[edit]

  • In 2012 three Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand) design students, Adam Ben-Dror, Shanshan Zhou, and Joss Doggett created an animatronic Anglepoise lamp, based off the animated Pixar character, Luxo Jr. They called their project "Pinokio". When Pinokio is switched off, it tilts its shade and flicks itself back on again, in a reference and reversal of Marvin Minsky's "Ultimate Machine".[11]
  • In Sam & Cat, Cat bought a toy similar to the useless machine, she loves it, but Sam doesn't find it remotely interesting.[citation needed]
  • XKCD comic strip #1203 shows a time machine that, once turned on, reverses time to make the person who powered it up switch it off.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Pesta, Abigail (12 March 2013). "Looking for Something Useful to Do With Your Time? Don't Try This". Wall Street Journal. p. 1. Retrieved 14 March 2013. 
  2. ^ Seedman, Michael. "(Homepage)". Leave Me Alone Box. LeaveMeAloneBox. Retrieved 14 March 2013. 
  3. ^ "Little Black Box". Grand Illusions. Retrieved 14 March 2013. 
  4. ^ a b Reiselman, Deborah (2012). "Alum Don Poynter gains novelty reputation on campus and off". UC Magazine (University of Cincinnati). Retrieved 15 March 2013. 
  5. ^ Cancilla, Sam. "Little Black Box". Sam's Toybox. Sam Cancilla. Retrieved 15 March 2013. 
  6. ^ "About". Liberty: The Stories Never Die!. Liberty Library Corporation. 2012. Retrieved 14 March 2013. 
  7. ^ Whitehill, Bruce. "Bettye-B". The Big Game Hunter. The Big Game Hunter. Retrieved 14 March 2013. 
  8. ^ Nel, Philip (2003). "The Disneyfication of Dr Seuss: faithful to profit, one hundred percent?". Cultural Studies (Taylor and Francis, Ltd.) 17 (5): 579–614. doi:10.1080/0950238032000126847. ISBN 9780203643815. 
  9. ^ Seedman, Michael. "What Others Have Done". Leave Me Alone Box. LeaveMeAloneBox. Retrieved 14 March 2013. 
  10. ^ "[search results: "useless machine kit"]". Amazon. Retrieved 2015-03-11. 
  11. ^ "Pinokio". 1 December 2012. Retrieved 31 March 2013. 
  12. ^ "xkcd: Time Machines". Retrieved 24 December 2014.