The Technium

The (Unspeakable) Ultimate Machine

Claude Shannon invented the modern mathematical definition of information, casting it in terms of bits and entropy. Shannon also tinkered with odd contraptions, but his boldest most brilliant invention was one called “The Ultimate Machine.”  It was based on an idea of Marvin Minsky.


Image from Lightbucket

The operation and spirit were described by Arthur C. Clarke in his book “Voice Across the Sea: Telstar and the Laying of the Trans-Atlantic Cable”:

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.

From a biography of Shannon by N.J.A. Sloane and A.D. Wyner.

Several copies of the machine were made and given to executives of AT&T, the parent company of Bell Labs. The above picture of the Machine depicts it be approximately suitcase size, so it is possible that more than one size was produced. I haven’t been able to locate any other images.

When asked about the Ultimate Machine Minsky says:  “I worked with Shannon at Bell Labs in the summer of 1952.  I suggested this machine, Shannon liked it, and he got the company to build a bunch of them and gave them to various executives.  I asked for a patent release on it, and they said no, and I didn’t pursue it.”

In a reminiscence about Shannon James Crow says,

I was fortunate in the 1950s to see Shannon demonstrate this on a television program. The memory is still vivid. The machine was a small closed box with a toggle switch on the front. Shannon flipped the switch. Then the lid opened, with whirring noises in the box, and a small hand emerged and shut off the switch, whereupon the noises stopped and the lid snapped shut.

Nothing is on YouTube yet. Not even sure which show it appeared on.

Of course many machines today have automatic shut-off circuits or valves. But this machine is the only one I know of that consists entirely of a shut-off circuit. However it would not surprise me if some ancient Chinese tinker, or Yankee basement hacker came up with a similar device. Send info if you know more. (Thanks to Michael Naimark for the tip.)

UPDATE:  A reader wrote to say he remembers there “was a plastic, toy version of this back in the first half of the 60’s,” which he was searching for his collection. He has not found the toy yet but he did find a passing remark about it from a book about insurance litigation uncovered in Google books:

My son’s favorite toy was a black box. It had a lever on top. To turn it on you flipped the lever on then all heck broke loose. It made all kinds of noise and it rumbled and rolled and kicked around. Finally the top would peek open and a white-gloved hand would come out and swing the lever to the off position. The hand would retreat immediately into the box, the top would slam shut. Total silence. That was it. A toy whose job was to turn itself off.

(The point about this in a lawyerly book was as metaphor for insurance which only turned itself off. “That’s this case. We bought our insurance. We asked for it. It made a lot of noise when we tried to turn it on. Then it slammed shut. A policy whose job was to turn itself off.”)

Now that he mentioned it I vaguely remember such a thing. Sort of like the Adams Family “Thing.” Anyone else seen it?

2nd UPDATE: A reader pointed me to this page which suggests the version of the machine shown in the picture is not Shannon’s original, but it does gives a video of it in action. Very cool!

  • Here is a youtube video of the Coffin Bank:

    I like how the mechanism keeps trying until it succeeds.

  • Sean

    Well, you’ve really restarted an engineering meme:

  • John Cartan

    I have a dim childhood memory of this device and have been looking for it for years without success. But I recently saw it again: on a rerun of an old TV show from the 60s – “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”.

    In season 1, episode 10, a young Kurt Russell plays a boy who has a novelty version of the machine, made out of black plastic with a large metal toggle switch to activate the mechanism. It appears in Act 1 and again in Act 3, where it is used as a distraction to thwart the bad guys.

  • Allucquére Rosanne Stone

    I was at Bell Labs Murray Hill during that period. The box(es…I only saw one) was approximately 6 inches long. The hand came from an inexpensive doll, and I believe the rest of the thing was made from parts one could requisition from the stock rooms. The switch was an old-style bat handle, which is to say, the motor had a tough time generating the force to throw it.:)

    Needless to say, when the first box showed up in my lab, it caused a sensation!

  • Dr H

    Wow. I’ve been searching for “the black box that turns itself off” for -years- without success, and as far as I can tell this thread is the -only- web reference to it out there (in English, anyway).

    And yes, I see that the thread is a year old, but desperation will leave no stone unturned…

    I remember the black box being sold through Spencer Gifts, which was, once upon a time, primarily a mail-order catalog buisness. When I was a kid my brother and I eagerly awaited the SG catalog (which came out each year in time for the Christmas shopping rush) to see what whacky stuff would be in it. They sold everything from pressure nozzles for your garden hose to whopee cushions.

    And… the Black Box. One switch; turn in on and the box shook and made a bunch of noise, the lid slowly rose, and a pale hand emerged and turned the whole thing off, hand retreated, lid snapped shut.

    I didn’t appreciate the profound metaphysical implications of this device until years later, and by then they had disappeared, apparently from all human ken except for a few subscribers to this list. :)

    And yeah, I also remember that they eventually came out with a bank version, where you put a coin in a slot to start the process, and the hand snatched the coin to turn itself off. But adding that extra level of purpose seemed to undermine the wonderful nihilism of the original.

    If *anyone* knows where I can find one of these, *please* drom me an e-mail. Thanks.

    Dr H

  • spybubble

    Yes! Nothing is on YouTube yet. Not even sure which show it appeared on.


  • Carlos

    I saw a very small version of this very recently, but don’t remember where. It might have been at the Maker Faire. It was clear plastic, with a switch on the outside that turned on a hand on an arm inside, which came out, flipped the switch, and retreated inside, allowing the lid to close just as the mechanism ran down. The size was around 6″ x 1.5″ x 1.5″.

  • Peter Riley

    The next time you watch “The Prisoner” episode “The General”, pay attention to the little box that accepts the little passdisk. It’s a slightly modified version of the toy people are remembering.

  • Charles Uphaus

    I, too, have been thinking about the toy version of the ultimate machine, that I remember seeing back in the 60’s. Would love to find one. But judging from the number comments, it looks like some company in China could make a bundle by producing an update.

  • I have a memory of a friend (and floormate of Shannon’s at Bell Labs)who told me that Shannon had a similar sort of machine on his office door (?) that would whimsically change his “in” to “out” and vice versa for whether the great man was there or not. (Memory serves perhaps a little faulty here, but I have a very strong memory-sense of Joe Heller’s Major Major from Catch-22 regarding this In/Out sign.)

  • james pierce

    ivan illich wrote about the ultimate machine (the plastic toy version) in ‘deschooling society’

  • Chuck Kemp

    I worked at Bell Labs in the 60s. One of my officemats was Gus Backman. He had one of the boxes. It was the size of a small suitcase and he was the builder of the original boxes. It was black and had an arm that came out a turned the toggle switch off. Gus passed away in the 70s and I don’t know what became of his copy of the original box.

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  • A. Gonçalves

    On the leavemealonebox site there is an image from an old ad – maybe this is the toy some of you recall…

  • Jim

    As a child I had the version that was a bank with a green glow in the dark type of hand that would suddenly come out and snatch your coin. Sure wish I had it now. Now I just have to decide if I’m going to build the original Useless Machine or the one that takes your money too.

  • Roger Willcocks
  • Anonymous
  • Reminds me of something you’d see on LOST.

  • You jogged my aging memory Kevin. There was a plastic, toy version of this in this back in the first half of the 60’s. This was all I could find so far. But I plan on finding one of these for my collection.

  • Odbasta

    I like this concept and found the Ultimate Machine fascinating, but I’m not sure I get how it “does nothing”. I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but it does _a lot_ of things. It seems quite complex in the way that it produces sound, has mechanical triggers to open/close a box lid, has a mounted arm that is (I presume) operated by levers or pulleys, and so on ad infinitum. How could one rightly say that it does nothing? That’s a lot of operations working in harmony.

    I think that the gripping psychological effect of the machine comes from the disappointment of observing the technical beauty of all these synchronized parts ultimately achieving no significant purpose. None. True, not many machines are built so elaborately for the single purpose of returning to state zero without doing something, however small, that is of worth to the universe. In that sense, the machine actually _is_ pretty sinister.

    Of course, we could all take off our geek engineer hats, and recognize this machine for what it really is: art. This Ultimate Machine certainly makes you think, and that’s surely worth something to the universe…right?

  • There are a few more pics and a little animation of the human/machine hands in on/off action here:

  • John Coate

    I used to have one of those toys. It must have been about 1960-62. The box was black. The hand was ghoulish green.

  • TJ

    This idea was a toy that, as I recall, was advertised in the back of comic-books. I guess now I know where they got the idea.

    Maybe these people (or an earlier incarnation) sold it. Was it a bank? I seem to remember a brown box and a yellow arm.

  • I can confirm that the toy did exist. My only memory of it is trying it out in on a store shelf, probably some time in the mid to late 60s, so I’m sure the things were commercially produced — as soon as I started reading this post I remembered the one I’d seen.

  • I found a video of the “Leave Me Alone Box” that, like these machines, turns itself off.

  • Yes, there was a toy version – like “the thing” of the Adam’s Family. I bought one 24 years ago at Ripley’s Believe it or Not in San Francisco. It was a black box with a lever on top. A hand came out and pushed the lever “off” and then quickly retreated back into the box. There was a bank version as well, on which you could place a coin and the hand would come out and grab it and take it into the box.

  • Caz

    I found this page while googling for the “black box” mentioned by Douglas Hofstadter in his book Godel, Escher, Bach. Another page I found that you may find interesting:

  • michael

    Something very similar comes to mind, but I remember it as a money box that would whirr and clank and then shoot out a ghostly/skeletal hand to take your coin and then shut off.

  • Ward

    There is a link to a very short video on the bottom of the Wikipedia page about Claude Shannon. It is referenced as the “Most Beautiful Machine”.

    This is the direct link:

    • Kevin Kelly

      Thanks Ward. I posted your suggested link to the video. Very cool.

  • Eric Brown

    Yes in about 1961 my grandfather gave me or showed me this fairly small black plastic box that did grumble a bit after the switch was turned on and then a hand poked out of a hatch on the other half of the box and turned itself off. I was six and very philosophical about the existance of this device that just existed to turn itself off. Was this the meaning of gadget? I later ended up building odd gadgets.

  • André Eliseu

    A Ultimate machine is shown in the first part of Gene Searchinger’s “The Human Language Series” (PBS).
    It is a small wood box (I guess it is about 20 cm high x 30 x 40 – estimated from the hand size shown in the video). It fits James Crow description (above) better than the case shown at the beginning of this page (and it much nicier too…)

  • Eric Brown

    I forgot to say how dissapointed I was in seeing the later bank version that grabbed coins. Yikes now it actually did something useful! Terrible.

  • I just read this post. Of course the INVERSE might even be more interesting. A machine, that when you turned it off, simply turned itself back on. Has anyone built one of THESE?

    • Ccllyyddee

      Apple makes iPods that like

  • Whitemirror
  • Macapplesauce

    How about one that when you turn it on, a hand comes out and accepts your money then turns itself off.  After it has been off for a while, it comes out, turns itself on accepts….

  • Ironically after reading this article, I have become convincingly positive this is exactly how my brain works.

  • oldster

    wasnt it a coffin shaped coin bank?

  • Asa

    9gag ?

  • Mrawesome

    I have built a machine that will turn of itself, but instead of using regular switch, I’ve used voice command switch. My box doesn’t open itself. But it does turn itself off. 

  • cdarwinorg

    One of the best sermons I ever heard was a Pastor who told us a story about a guest on “I’ve Got a Secret” who built a machine that did absolutely nothing. As I look back on his message some 40 years later I think he was warning his congregation how Lutheran Liturgy can transform itself into Lutheran Lethargy. We can go through the all the motions and yet not produce any fruit for our labor.

  • Roger Browne

    It’s almost five years since this post. Now, if you search YouTube for “useless machine”, there are hundreds of videos of machines that do nothing other than turn themselves off. Some of them are very beautifully crafted.

  • BriandDcoC

    My buddies dad worked for AT&T for years out here in Spokane. His dads name was Maurie (sp??) Hickey. Just last weekend he pulled out the black box, just as you described it, and it still worked. There is a good pssibility that it was made by your associate. I’ll try to get a video of it and post it for you and maybe you can confirm if Mr. Backman made it ir not.

    • Jethro

      I purchased on of the original ones at a local auction near Albany NY about 15 years ago and sold it about 10 years ago on eBay. It did indeed say “Bell Labs” on a small tag on the outside of the small suitcase. It was about 18-24″ wide x 10″ deep by about 8″ high. The hand and hand was in a straight line and was parallel to the front of the box with an elbow. Worked perfect. Contacted Lucent Technologies (formerly bell Labs) and they had no idea what it was. I never knew who made it and whether it was actually made at Bell labs or just was made in an old Bell Labs case that once housed something else. (I know now it was made there of course). Anyhow..Ive seen it and it does not look like anything Ive yet seen shown online anywhere.

  • slocklin

    there’s one on ebay now

  • Rachel

    Gus Blackman was my great uncle. We loved hearing the stories from Bell Labs. Especially the machine that turned itself off!