Machines that do nothing but switch themselves off

Useless machines are home-built devices that turn themselves off as soon as you turn them on — and that's it. That's all the they do. The more elaborate and gimmicky the method by which they accomplish this job, the better. As a hobby, useless machines have been around since the 1950s, but Abigail Pesta of the Wall Street Journal says they're making a comeback.


  1. What better expression of the zeitgeist of our epoch?

    “But something about the purposeless purity of a machine so useless, it does nothing more than turn itself off, is capturing the imagination of tinkerers and thinkers alike”

  2. a similarly minimal idea ; since first seeing it in person I’ve always been haunted by the sculpture @ the MIT museum which just sits in a pool of oil and repeatedly scoops some of the oil up and pours it over itself – perpetually lubricating itself – here’s a video of it I just found ;

    1. A couple of the sculptures featured in the WSJ video were also Arthur Ganson, notably the wishbone one. He’s got a good official collection on youtube:

  3. “Nothing could be 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 describing Claude Shannon’s creation, not a “useless” machine but the Ultimate Machine.  

  4. Thanks Maggie. I’d seen so many posts on BoingBoing about variants of this, but had no idea it was invented and popularized by such luminaries.

  5. My favorite was a box with a power cord coming out of it. The box was marked “fuse tester”. Inside was a dead short.
    Once a salesman asked to borrow my diagonal cutters. About 2 minutes latter I heard a circuit breaker go pop. He’d snapped on one of those easy connectors to a piece of zip cord, plugged it in, ran it up the side of his desk to where he wanted it and then cut it off. The resulting melted hole in the cutters was about the right size for stripping #22 wire.

  6. Gee, isn’t this what congress does.

    Jobs bill ~ NO!
    Tax the rich ~ NO!
    Help the poor ~ NO!
    Pass a budget ~ NO!
    Do something good ~ NO!

    1. I don’t think “off” works like that.

      Also, the machine itself would be the same – you’d just switch the labels.

  7. The U.S. Department of Defense would like 100,000 of them, ASAP.  Is $800 per unit acceptable?

  8. Reminds me of the Farley Fuse Tester, named after the late Bob Farley whom I knew as a student in Ann Arbor.  The Farley Fuse Tester consisted of a box with a pilot light, a pushbutton. and a slot for a fuse.  The user sticks the fuse into the slot.  The light lights. Then the user pushes the button.  If the light goes out, the fuse was good.

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