How to build "The Most Useless Machine"

NewImageA couple of years ago I was on The Colbert Report showing some fun projects from MAKE, and Stephen fell in love with a project called "The Most Useless Machine." (Watch the episode here.) The Most Useless Machine is a box that shuts itself off when you turn it on. (After the show Stephen hinted that he wanted to keep it, so I gave it to him and he was really happy.)

Make:Projects just posted complete instructions for making your own Most Useless Machine. It's the simplest version yet, and is sure to bring a smile to the face of anyone who tries it.

NewImageLast year I saw a video of the "Leave Me Alone Box" built by Michael Seedman. Flip its switch on, and an arm reaches out of a door to turn the switch back off. To paraphrase The Terminator, that's what it does, that's all it does, and it will not stop until its circuit is dead.

I had to have one of my own, so I made one. Seedman's design uses a microcontroller to run two servomotors: one to open the lid, and another to push the switch. This makes for an impressive performance, but seemed too complicated, and actually, his circuit remains powered even when the box is idle.

For existential purity, I wanted a super-simple machine that really turned itself off. So I came up with a single-motor design controlled by a 555 timer chip, with a curved arm that both lifts the lid and flips off the switch. I called it the "Most Useless Machine" and posted it on Instructables along with a YouTube video of the box in action. The project soon went viral, attracting millions of viewers, thousands of comments, and many builds and design variations. Whew!

Along the way, Instructables member Compukidmike came up with an even simpler version that dispenses with the 555 circuitry entirely by using a gearmotor and two switches. The resulting project, presented here, is the ultimate in technology for its own sake, a minimal assemblage of parts that, through its one meaningless act of defiance, speaks volumes.

How to Build the Most Useless Machine

You can buy a kit for $30


  1. I have a colleague who would love this, but I’m afraid it would also completely destroy his productivity and lead to extended Exchange outages at his fund…

  2. Huh. I was looking for the build-it-yourself link. Is it anywhere to be found…?

    EDIT: D’oh, followed the link chain on the Frivolous Engineering page…

  3. If you really want to make a derivative machine, have a switch that is really heavy and you have to lift up to turn the thing on.  Then when you take your finger off the switch falls back down to the off position.

  4. Wikipedia says this device was originally invented by Claude Shannon. Yes, the same guy who invented both digital logic and information theory. It’s mind-blowing how much stuff he did.

  5. Claude Shannon & Marvin Minsky came up with the idea.

    Mr. Shannon was smart, but dig this:  Issac Asimov described Mr. Minsky as one of the two people he considered smarter that himself.

    Here’s a short clip of the Mr. Minsky talking about the machine:

    And thanks for the great post, Mark!

  6. When I was a kid (I’m 70 now) my friend and I built such a box. It consisted of a motor, some simple mechanics, a hand and a switch. When you turned the switch on, the hand extended, opening the lid, turned the switch back off, and inertia gave the system enough residual motion to snatch the hand back in. We’re talking about the 1950’s here. No ICs, no microcontrollers, no electroncs at all. Just a simple mechanism and a little finesse. Worked great!

  7. I also remember that we used an article from Popular Mechanics or maybe Popular Science as a reference. Someone might want to do a little research.

  8. I liked the one that, after a random number of on/off sequences, would start to shake, then randomly move around the table in an effort to get away from its tormentor. 

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