Useless machine  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

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.



The Italian artist Bruno Munari began building "useless machines" (macchine inutili) in the 1930s. He was a "third generation" Futurist and did not share the first generation's boundless enthusiasm for technology, but sought to counter the threats of a world under machine rule by building machines that were artistic and unproductive.

The version of the useless machine that became famous in Information Theory (basically a box with a simple switch which, when turned "on", causes a hand or lever to appear from inside the box that switches the machine "off" before disappearing inside the box again) appears to have been invented by MIT professor and artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, while he was a graduate student at Bell Labs in 1952. Minsky dubbed his invention the "ultimate machine", but that sense of the term did not catch on. The device has also been called the "Leave Me Alone Box".

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.

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.

Commercial products

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. Other versions have been produced. 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. Robert J. Whiteman, owner and president of Liberty Library Corporation, also claims credit for developing "The Thing". (Both companies were later to be co-defendants in landmark litigation initiated by Theodor Geisel ("Dr. Seuss") over copyright issues related to figurines).

Do-it-yourself versions of the useless machine (often modernized with microprocessor controls) have been featured in a number of web videos and inspired more complex machines that are able to move or are using more than one switch.

Conceptual significance

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."

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Useless machine" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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