History of the Machine

The Frivolous Engineering Company Inc. did not invent the Machine, it’s been around for at least 60 years.  And had we know the history of the machine when we first made ours, we never would have called it useless.

Marvin Minsky came up with the idea in 1952. Claude Shannon, who worked with Minsky at IBM liked the idea so much he built one.

Here’s a recent clip of Mr. Minsky talking about the Machine.

Arthur C. Clarke liked it so much he wrote about it at least twice:  in Harper’s Weekly, and in his book “Voice Across the Sea“.

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…It is merely a small wooden casket the size and shape of a cigar-box, with a single switch on one face…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 knew a good thing (and must have liked recycling too) when he saw it. He also described Marvin Minsky as one of two people he considered smarter than himself.

Unfortunately this idea was way ahead of it’s time.  Marvin tried to get his bosses at IBM to patent this marvelous invention and for some reason they didn’t.

At least one company tried to sell them but as far as I can tell not very many.  If you have one of these early versions, please contact me.

Then the idea of a machine that would turn itself off lay dormant for many years.

Eventually the internet came along.  The first mention about the machine I can find on-line is this posting at The Technium in March, 2008.  That’s where most of this history was gathered.

Shortly there after the idea of an Ultimate Machine came of age…or did it?

4 thoughts on “History of the Machine

  1. Guy Drennan

    I remember seeing one of these old original machines as a kid! Did not realize it until I saw the old ad. Thanks for the memory,

  2. Chuck Adams

    Around 45 years ago a cousin of mine who was a couple years older, and a good deal smarter in the ways of the world than his rube cousin, had a device very much like your amazing machine, with a more devious intent!
    It was black painted metal, although more rectangular than square, with what could be called a “Coin Holder” on the top. The activation switch was just behind and inline with the coin holder. The idea was that you loaded a penny in the holder, and flipped the switch, whereupon a screeching, mechanical, “witch’s” laugh came from the box as the as the trap door slowly opened. Once it was all the way open, a green rubber hand snapped out of the opening, flipped the switch to “off” and retreated back into the trap door as it slammed shut – carrying your penny with it! Now, about 15 or 20 cents later the novelty was kind of wearing thin, but Alex quickly produced a flashlight and “charged up the witch!” – drawing me right back into the whole scam… we retreated to his closet where the witch began working her way through my silver with her “really cool green glow in the dark” hand.
    Of course Alex had lost the “special” screwdriver that opened the little door on the underside to dump out the coins… All these years later I’d still pay to stand in googly-eyed amazement in the dark of Alex’s closet, watching the glowing witches hand snagging my retirement fund – penny by penny!

  3. Jay Dillon / Jay Dillon Rare Books + Manuscripts

    My father worked at Bell Labs (Murray Hill) ca 1953-93. Once in the 1960s he borrowed and brought home a plain wooden box finished or painted in black, maybe 20 inches wide by 12 inches deep by 10 inches high.

    The box had a hinged lid and an ordinary toggle-switch on the front, with a red indicator-lamp beside the switch, as I recall. One flipped the switch; the lamp glowed; with a quiet whirr the lid opened about 6-8 inches; an ‘animatronic’ forearm and hand — nicely dressed, cufflink and all, I think — reached out and flipped the switch off; the light went off; with a whirr again the arm retreated into the box; and that was that.

    Presumably this had been built at the Labs, and obviously it was a later and more ‘lifelike’ version of Minsky’s ‘ultimate machine’ 1952.



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