Make a machine that turns itself off

Instructables has instructions for building this Claude Shannon-style box that turns itself off.

The Most Useless Machine EVER!


  1. lol. a comment on the instructables page compares this to vista. :) my first thought was of someone dragging themselves out of bed just to drink. not that i’d know anything about that.

  2. I have one of the less zen-like commercial version on my desk at work (black plastic box, ugly blue-ish hand reaches out and grabs a coin from a slot, then the box turns off. The one that just turns off the “on” switch was cooler, but I collected a lot cash from visitors with mine.

  3. I didn’t think there was a machine more useless than a twitter peek… Oh wait, this one has entertainment value. So I guess I’m still right about that…

  4. I did this years ago, by attaching a Clapper to a tape recorder containing a loop tape of me clapping. I’d clap it on, and then it would clap itself off. I’d always meant to get a second clapper and recorder.

  5. A comment in the OP article about the Shannon box mentioned a 60s version of the machine with a hand that grabbed a coin before shutting itself off. I remember a pair of brothers at my junior high who had one of these boxes; they would set themselves up in the entryway of our local Kroger store every Saturday and make quite the killing by simply getting folks to put a (non-returnable) quarter in the slot! “Do it again, Mommy!”

  6. The box with the hand is usually known as a “Thing” box, named after the hand in the Addams Family. You can find them now and then on eBay.

  7. I just got dead excited about you using a link I’d sent in yesterday, but then seeing I didn’t get a shout out kind of took the gleam off it. :(

  8. This is so old. The earliest version I saw was built over 40 years ago.

    There was a joke about a button so designed that when you pressed it it pressed back warmly making you feel wanted.

    Another useless device from the same era was a chassis mounted power plug on a box labeled “fuse tester”. The wiring inside the box was a dead short. Whoever had left it on his desk could count on someone trying it out.

  9. Speaking of useless devices, a close cousin to this was a box that wouldn’t shut off. Popular Electronics published the plans and a couple of my friends implemented a version of it for some fun and games at their junior high. IIRC it consisted of a delay switch (the kind that keeps the lights on for 60 seconds after you switch them off), a siren, a non-functional wall plug, and a very frustrated assistant principal who finally put a percussive end to the matter (i.e. he stomped it to death).

  10. Where can I buy this marvelous machine ! its urgent for my birthday father !

    eric faure from france

  11. I built one of these in high school electric shop in 1958 after seeing one on TV.

    The TV version was more dramatic and that was the era of the mysterious ” black boxes” rumored to be in use by our military. The sequence went like this:

    One would throw the single switch on the top. The box would emit an intermittent ominous whirring sound for a short while, and then a misshapen deathly palid index finger would emerge from the trap door to push the toggle switch back off.

  12. I cannot leave Bell Labs without mentioning one more device which I saw there, and which haunts me as it haunts everyone else who has ever seen it in action. It is the Ultimate Machine–the End of the Line. Beyond it there is Nothing. It sits on Claude Shannon’s desk driving’ people mad. (Or sat, as Shannon is now at MIT.) Nothing could look simpler. It is merely a small wooden casket the size and shape of a cigar-box, with a single switch on one face. When you throw the switch, there is an angry, purposeful buzzing. The lid slowly rises, and from beneath it emerges a hand. The hand reaches down, turns the switch off, and retreats into the box. With the finality of a closing coffin, the lid snaps shut, the buzzing ceases, and peace reigns once more. The psychological effect, if you do not know what to expect, is devastating. There is something unspeakably sinister about a machine that does nothing–absolutely nothing–except switch itself off.

    –Arthur C. Clarke, The Ultimate Machine, Harper’s, Aug. 1958.

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