back to article Masses marvel at 'Most Useless Machine'

A YouTube video of "The Most Useless Machine EVER!" is proving popular among those who'd like to have a robotic box whose only purpose is to turn itself off: This entertaining device is a version of the "Ultimate Machine" built by US electronic engineer Claude Shannon, based on an idea by Marvin Minsky, the co-founder of …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Oh yes

    I got to build me one of those.

  2. Anonymous Coward

    Schrodinger gave me one of these for Christmas...

    Should I open it?

    1. Andus McCoatover

      Good point!

      Wonder if scientists could time how long it takes for his cat to turn it off....Quantum mechanics finally revealed! ;-)

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up


    Absolutely wonderful. If I had the time I'd build one.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Did Apple make it?

    They are good at making crap no one wants. Lets call it an iTwat in honour of all the idiots who would buy it anyway.

    1. Hedley Phillips


      any opportunity to bash Apple eh.

      1. Doc Savage

        to be fair

        it can't have been Microsoft... it works

  5. SuperTim

    I've got one of those

    Only it doesnt switch itself of per se, it just blue screens of death.

  6. Andus McCoatover
    Thumb Up

    I had to stagger outside..

    ..when I saw the video. I was gutless with laughter (and, 'outside' means -20 Celcius at the moment - in a t-shirt). Outside, because, being on the Dole I couldn't afford to buy the pub. yet another keyboard.

    Thanks for that! Joviality, gathering nuts and may, etc. Could even get a wry smile from Eeyore.

  7. Gordon Henderson

    Excellent, but ...

    Nothing sort of new ... Did anyone ever have one of those coffin/skeleton hand money boxes that were the rage some years back?

    Hm. and a quick google shows them to still be available! Fantastic!

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Exactly what I was thinking when I saw it!!

      I had one of those banks as a lad in the late '60s, so this idea is, what? 40+ years old?

  8. Ben Ryves

    These have been around a while.

    Here's one from the 1980s -

  9. Mike Bird 1

    More useless

    Sorry but the British Government completly outdoes that box for "most useless machine".

  10. Graham Wilson

    That device is nearly as old as time itself.

    That device is nearly as old as time itself.

    Are there really people out there who have not seen it before?

  11. thedweeb

    But it isn't useless...

    It's entertaining all of us, so therefore it has a use. To be truly useless it would need to turn itself off without us even knowing it. But then that would introduce an entertaining element of mystery and uncertainty.

  12. Annihilator

    Inverse Perpetual Motion Device!

    We're almost there folks...

    1. Anonymous Coward


      An object at rest cannot be stopped!

  13. Tom 7 Silver badge

    time has not improved it

    I remember seeing one of these in the mid 60's which had a mechanical hand.

    Not the most useless machine though - a computer with office software beats it hands or levers down.

  14. Lenoros
    Paris Hilton

    missing the point

    Actually, you guys are missing the point, this is actually pretty interesting, if you think, there isnt any actual invention that can turn itself completely off ready to be powered on without an external intervention, here is the description of the box that ben posted (the grand illusion one):

    "I believe I am right in saying this machine was actually always "on", with an electromagnet holding the spring-loaded piston (with a doll's hand on) in place until the switch was operated; the hand then shot out, turned the switch "off", re-energised the solenoid, and retracted. "

    Its exatly the inverse mechanism, which means that by mixing the two techniquies with some adaptations, we can actually create perpetual motion by constantly switching between on and off states...

    Paris Hilton, because genius iam not

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Gates Horns


    Surely a representation of Windows ME

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      It switches off cleanly, and doesn't hang for no good reason while doing so.

  16. Identity

    Yeah, not new at all

    Apart from the banks from the 60's (I had one that was called the Schmeckenbeckerschnitzelbank), I also remember an Apple prank from the pre-OS X days: there was a little AppleScript with an icon of a switch that, when clicked, shut the computer down (devised, I guess, as a minor convenience). Putting this item (surreptitiously) in the Startup Items folder turned the Mac into a similarly useless machine, with the added value of driving the victim nuts...

  17. MrHorizontal

    Of course it has a use!

    It's the ultimate eco-friendly device!

    A huge amount of marketing money should be spent on selling it to the tree hugger geeks around the world concerned about their power usage.

    Come on Vulture, your wit factor can do better than this ;)

  18. Cantankerous Old Buzzard

    Missing the point

    This is the prototype of Windoze 8 -- it SUCCESSFULLY executes a system shutdown.

    Congrats to all of the M$ minions for achieving a major milestone !!

  19. Andus McCoatover

    Humour bypass operation, some of you?

    Grief, it was - er -funny. Yet some of you have been lambasted.

    As an aside I'm glad Moderatrix is back as a moderator. I've had some IMHO incongruous posts rejected by the new jobcentre retrainee yoof numpties that El Reg is now giving the BOFH's cattle-prod training course, one of whom who e-mailed me to tell me he didn't respect my opinion. Can't remember hs name - "Ding, Dang, Ding-a-l-ling-a Dong, Dung" or something like that....

    Muppet. Bet he's less than 50 years old. Why do children moderate my comments???

  20. Pirate Dave Silver badge

    Could be a useful device

    if they port it to Windows. Think of all the grief the world would be spared if only Windows machines would automatically turn themselfs off immediately after being turned on.

    1. J. Cook Silver badge

      Oh, there's a windows version, alright... :D

      Easy-peasy: put a command script into the "all users" startup folder with a single line in it:

      shutdown -r -f -t 05

      This gives the poor sucker 5 seconds to (hopefully) open a command prompt and type shutdown -a. :D

      Practical joker? moi?

  21. Sarah Bee (Written by Reg staff)

    Re: Humour bypass operation, some of you?

    I'm not your friend and protector, McCoatover. I would nix all of your comments as soon as look at them. And if you bother my esteemed colleague again then you will be in a world of poop.

    Either that or I'll just go on living my life, as will he. It's always an option. I tend to forget.

    1. Andus McCoatThen

      Thou shalt not poke the bear holding the ban hammer...

      Or thou shall feel the thump of an unhappy Mod.

    2. Andus McCoatover

      I didn't bother him.

      He bothered me. Personally. Write the reason for the distaste of the comment on this 'wall', NOT my personal e-mail. (As you did about my comment earlier - fair play to that). E-mail was unprofessional. Me? I don't need to be professional - I'm not in a profession, unless 'drawing the dole' is becoming one nowadays - which IS a 'world of poop'. Hope you never try it.

      As my mother used to say "Andus, you're big enough and ugly enough not to let it bother you". (Nor, I might add, to need a 'friend and protector')

      Wassat? "Life on line 1, Andus"

  22. Haku

    Utterly pointless, completely fun

    I first saw one of these on a while ago and had that "I've so got to make one of those" thoughts, a little digging round YouTube revealed these things have been around forever, originating in those cute mechanical coin banks where you place the coin on a pad and a hand or something reaches out of the box and pulls it in.

    However this one is my favourite useless machine so far:

  23. Haku

    Red Dwarf

    The useless machine also reminds me of my favouite episode of Red Dwarf, series four episode four, White Hole, when Rimmer turns on voice control of Holly's on/off switch (skip to 10:45):

    P.S. would anyone like any toast?

  24. Donald Miller

    Poison link

    I used the link at the bottom of the article and got hit by trojan HTML/Renos and adware Clairagain.

  25. Ball boy Silver badge

    There's nothing new in this world!

    I have a Dell laptop: it's MORE than a match for this! I start it, it crashes - no moving parts in sight!

    Eat your heart out, MIT: Michael beat you to it *years* back!

    /no space for a reference to PH: she's always ready to turn on (allegedly)

  26. Doug Glass

    Some People's Children

    This has been around since at least the 1950s. It and Alfred E. Newman.

  27. Andy Baird

    Wisdom of the ancients

    "if you think, there isnt any actual invention that can turn itself completely off ready to be powered on without an external intervention."

    Of course there is. The original novelty "black box" toy of the 1950s, upon which this less interesting knockoff is based, contained a mechanism powered by an electric motor. Power to the motor was gated through the top-mounted switch. When the switch was turned on, the motor ran for several seconds while the box rocked and jerked mysteriously (thanks to a cam-actuated lever on the underside); then the hand came out of the lid, flipped the switch, and retracted as the motor shut off. At that point the cycle could be repeated ad lib.

    Point is, while the black box was off, it was truly and completely off--it wasn't drawing any current until the switch was thrown by the user. I believe that meets your definition, "Paris."

    As for Ben's statement that "I believe I am right in saying this machine was actually always 'on', with an electromagnet holding the spring-loaded piston..." well, Ben guessed wrong. At least, none of the boxes of this type that I saw in the 50s and 60s worked that way. Think about it: if they had, they would have drained their batteries very quickly supplying current to Ben's imagined solenoid. It may be hard to believe, but even fifty years ago, engineers were smart enough not to do that. ;-)

  28. Stevie

    Bah and double Bah!

    They had commercially available versions of this very toy when I was a kid. The only difference was that it was a modified version of the "coin grabbing hand" box and so had a convincing monster hand that threw the switch instead of the wooden hook this one has.

    I call shenanigans!

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Even if it is old

    if you have a spare half hour would it not be fun to build?

  30. Old Hand

    Supply chain

    I saw one of these around 1960, in plastic with a little green hand. I just had to build one too; trouble was, where to get a hand? No-one would lend me one, so in the end I went to a Second Hand Shop :-)

  31. Martin Glenn
    Thumb Down

    I have one already

    I have one already its called my Sky+ plus box, Turn it on and it will at some point turn itself off!

  32. pctechxp
    IT Angle

    someone tell UK Government

    So they could build one and it might just qualify as a successful project for once.

    It doesn't really have an IT angle though, more a mechanical one.

  33. GrahamT

    over engineered

    I just looked at the schematic. It uses a 555 timer as a monstable. Retro sure, but a relay would work as well, or a windscreen wiper motor switch.

    If you think about it, a single stroke windsceen wiper does exactly the same thing: push the switch and release it, and the wiper does one wipe then switches itself off. This just uses the arm to reset the switch instead of a spring.

    Cute though.

    1. Andus McCoatover

      Taking me back awhile...

      Very good workfriend of mine, who was turned to dust in a crematorium (G3TFM, anyone?) in the Autumn of 2007, had a mini.

      I had a Ford Anglia*. Neither of us had a delay wiper, so, I designed and built on Veroboard - one for each. Used a UJT (Unijunction transistor) as the 'timer', with a cheap relay to fire the wipers off. About 5 components in total. This was about 1978.

      *This was an Anglia 105E (registration 989 FOJ - clue on it's age. Never let me down, even tho' it only cost me £50 then), not the previous version 995E. The previous version had a vacuum wiper mechanism linked to the intake. In short, the more you put your foot down, the slower the wipers got. Yep, doing 70 in heavy rain, it was better to stick your head out of the window. If you REALLY needed to see, take foot off accelerator, and wait...wait...wait for the vacuum to build up.

  34. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    feels like it's missing something

    a sign saying do not push this button, and another sign that lights up afterwards saying do not push this button again.

  35. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

    Turing invented a Halting Machine

    But it didn't always work, that was the problem :-)

  36. Duke of URL

    magic box-hand is OLD

    I cannot believe the fuss being made over this. In the mid-60s, that was marketed as a spin-off from TV's The Addams Family - it was the character Hand.

    SOMEONE owes a whole lot of royalties...

  37. Baruch
    Paris Hilton

    That's *So* Last Millennium...

    This concept has been around for forty years that I personally know of; probably even longer. Back then, however, the machines were a it more entertaining, as a skeletal hand would creep out and *pull* the switch to turn the device off.

    I suppose that when enough people forget about something, it gets "reinvented" and is considered new by a new generation. I await the (re)discovery of the Slinky, the Frisbee (previously known as the "Pluto Platter"), and the Hula Hoop.

    Paris Hilton, because El Reg doesn't do IT, but they do Paris...

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