© 2016 The Frivolous Engineering Company
The Frivolous Engineering Company

History of the Useless Machine

The Frivolous Engineering Company did not invent the Machine, it’s been around for at least 60 years.  Marvin Minsky*, one of the fathers of artificial intelligence came up with the idea in 1952. Claude Shannon, who worked with Minsky at IBM liked the idea so much he built several models. Later, Arthur C. Clarke, the British author of science and science fiction visited Bell Labs in the mid fifties and saw the prototype on Shannon’s desk and was “haunted by it”. 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. (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.” Clarke described Marvin Minsky as one of two people he considered smarter than himself. Minsky tried to get his bosses at IBM to patent the machine but for some reason they didn’t. At least one company tried to sell them but as far as I can tell not very many. Back then, a machine that would turn itself off was disturbing to most people. Fast forward a half century to when people are much more comfortable with technology. The Useless Machine is not that disturbing, it’s kind of funny for most people. *Mr. Minsky passed away January 24th, 2016. He will be missed: “a pioneering thinker and the foremost expert on the theory of artificial intelligence”

Marvin Minsky discussing the Useless Machine

Originally he called it “The Ultimate Machine”

Frankenstein Chamber of Horrors comic book ad

The Machine Has Been

Around a Long Time

Copyright©2016 The Frivolous Engineering Company

History of the Useless

Machine

The Frivolous Engineering Company did not invent the Machine, it’s been around for at least 60 years.  Marvin Minsky*, one of the fathers of artificial intelligence came up with the idea in 1952. Claude Shannon, who worked with Minsky at IBM liked the idea so much he built several models. Later, Arthur C. Clarke, the British author of science and science fiction visited Bell Labs in the mid fifties and saw the prototype on Shannon’s desk and was “haunted by it”. 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. (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.” Clarke described Marvin Minsky as one of two people he considered smarter than himself. Minsky tried to get his bosses at IBM to patent the machine but for some reason they didn’t. At least one company tried to sell them but as far as I can tell not very many. Back then, a machine that would turn itself off was disturbing to most people. Fast forward a half century to when people are much more comfortable with technology. The Useless Machine is not that disturbing, it’s kind of funny for most people. *Mr. Minsky passed away January 24th, 2016. He will be missed: “a pioneering thinker and the foremost expert on the theory of artificial intelligence”
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