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Revival of Useless Machines

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

What is a useless machine? It's one that has no purpose or one that's more irritating than useful.

What is a useless machine? It's one that has no purpose or one that's more irritating than useful.

Failed Inventions and Useless Contraptions

Mischievous people have created devices that have no purpose whatsoever; others have built machines that have a purpose, but it's entirely overridden by the annoyance they cause.

Alexander George writes in Popular Mechanics that “No single device has done so little good and caused so much annoyance as the car alarm.” The FBI reports that auto thefts in 2016 totalled 765,484 nationwide. So, Mr. George clearly has a point.

A strong argument can be made that the leaf blower is an invention whose aggravation factor greatly outweighs its utility as its owners insist on shattering the peace and calm of a Sunday afternoon’s snooze on the deck.

There are plenty of other contraptions that have completely failed to live up to their inventor’s expectations. There is even a Museum of Unworkable Machines dedicated to this field of futility, mostly centred on the pointless search for perpetual motion. There are other useless contrivances designed to create a smile such as diet water in a bottle or DVD re-winders.

However, there is a branch of engineering devoted to creating devices that are deliberately useless. There seem to be no boundaries to useless obsessions. It’s time to meet Marvin Minsky.

Marvin Minsky: No wonder he had that wry smile on his face.

Marvin Minsky: No wonder he had that wry smile on his face.

The Ultimate Machine

Mechanisms with moving parts that do nothing useful had a heyday in the 1950s; now the internet has given them a new lease on life.

One of the greatest time-wasters of its kind is a machine that, when it’s switched on, switches itself off. It’s a box with a switch mounted on top. When the switch is turned on a lid rises and a mechanical arm emerges to turn the switch off. The arm then retreats back into the box. We have artificial intelligence expert Marvin Minsky to thank for this piece of frivolity.

However, somebody perhaps in need of professional help put two useless machines back-to-back with a piece of wood connecting the switches. As one machine switches itself off it pushes the wood to turn the other machine on, which now switches off and pushes . . . etc. It's uselessness taken to the limit without the need for human intervention. Someone watching this contraption in operation said it reminded him of a job he once had.

Meanwhile, back at the start of this nonsense, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke saw what Professor Minsky called The Ultimate Machine; it also came to be known as the Leave Me Alone Box. Clarke was not amused by the gizmo and wrote in Harper’s (August 1958): “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.”

So, if you have nothing better to do with your time (laundry, vacuuming, dishes?) read on and learn more about useless machines.

Useless Machines Making a Comeback

When he wasn’t busy inventing such exotica as the confocal microscope, Marvin Minsky dreamed up other useless machines. One was a device that was set to ring a bell when gravity changes. As gravity never changes, the bell never rings.

Brett Coulthard says he was inspired (if that’s the correct word) by gadgets such as Minsky’s to create some of his own. The Regina, Saskatchewan, man saw video of useless machines on the internet and that motivated him to start up his business, the Frivolous Engineering Company, in 2011 to make and sell useless machines.

A report by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation notes that Coulthard’s “devices have become so popular that he devotes himself to making them, full-time, and selling them around the world.”

He markets kits so those who like to tinker while doing something utterly pointless can build their own; the mechanically challenged can buy fully assembled units.

The company’s website quotes entertainer “Weird Al” Yankovic as saying, “I never realized till now how much I needed one of these.”

We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.”

— Oscar Wilde

Beyond the Useless Machine

In Germany, Andreas Fiessler has taken the useless machine to a new level. Using a broken desktop printer as a base he has constructed an “Advanced Useless Machine.” This version comes with a bank of eight switches that keep the mechanical hand busy turning them off. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before someone escalates and the equivalent of an arms race breaks out in the world of useless machines.

More Stuff That Is Entirely Useless

The Waiting Machine

There’s the waiting machine. When a crank is turned, the index finger of a wooden hand taps to let everyone within earshot know the operator is irritated by a delay. Very useful at airports.

Pet Rocks

Although not a machine, one of the most useless, yet financially successful, creations was the Pet Rock. Gary Dahl fashioned the craze for adopting beach pebbles in 1975. The popularity of the stones sparkled for six months and then fizzled, but not before selling more than a million copies and making Dahl a very wealthy man. So, the Pet Rock wasn’t entirely useless.

Of course, good ideas should never be allowed to die so a company called ThinkGeek later marketed a USB-enabled Pet Rock for $7.99 plus shipping.

This Article?

Now wasn’t reading this article a totally useless thing to do? Unless, of course, it made you chuckle, because a chuckle is never useless.

Bonus Factoid

Poynter Products of Cincinnati capitalized on Dr. Minsky’s important work by producing a toy it called the Little Black Box in 1959. It performed almost exactly in the same way as the Ultimate Machine. Recently, one sold on eBay for $50.00


  • “Why the Hell Do They Still Make Car Alarms?”Alexander George, Popular Mechanics, September 24, 2015.
  • “Motor Vehicle Theft.” FBI Uniform Crime Reports, undated.
  • “The Ultimate Machine.” Arthur C. Clarke, Harper’s, August 1958.
  • “ ‘Useless Machine’ Maker from Regina Gaining Worldwide Fame.” CBC News, March 13, 2013.
  • “Useless Machine Advanced Edition.” Andreas Fiessler, undated.
  • “Looking for Something Useful to Do With Your Time? Don’t Try This.” Abigail Pesta, Wall Street Journal, March 12, 2013.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor


Mike Leal from London on March 19, 2016:

Excellent Hub. Interesting, informative and a bit funny. Thanks for sharing.