Markets in everything

by on March 13, 2013 at 2:19 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

For the past year and a half, he has been running a business, the Frivolous Engineering Co., that sells kits to build the gadgets—enough of them that he no longer repairs soft-drink machines.

And what is this fine gentleman from Saskatchewan marketing the instruction kits for?

Invented in the 1950s by an artificial-intelligence expert, the device is known as the “useless machine.” It is typically a small box with an on/off switch and a hinged lid. Turn on the switch and a lever pops out, turns off the switch, then retreats. That is the machine’s sole purpose: You turn it on, and it turns itself off.

There are many kinds of the machines:

There are useless machines made of wood, Plexiglas and Lego parts. There is a very tall useless machine. One uses a furry paw to pop out and switch itself off. Another does it with a toy duck’s bill. There is a useless machine battling another useless machine, turning each other on and off, over and over.

Note that while some call it the “useless” machine, a’ la Turing others call it the “ultimate” machine.  The full article is here.

1 john personna March 13, 2013 at 2:49 pm

The machines are cute, but I think the meta is about skills development. When I search “build a useless machine” one of the Make Magazine sites comes up. So, to the extent that the game is more to build one than to own one, it is building human capital.

2 Rahul March 13, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Isn’t this a particular case of the Rube Goldberg Machine?

3 john personna March 13, 2013 at 3:15 pm

Comic automatia? Or dare I say kinetic art? There are logs of good precedents. Dug North’s blog is a good jumping off point.

4 CD March 13, 2013 at 5:08 pm

No. It’s robust and very, very simple.

More interestingly, the typical Rube Goldberg machine ( does not close the loop. Instead there’s an input and a separate output, and the comic effect comes from making the connection between input and output as roundabout and elaborate as possible.

What’s wonderful about this machine is that its only action is to reject the input.

5 Chris M. March 13, 2013 at 3:32 pm

This useless machine battle seems educational at least:

6 use for amusement March 13, 2013 at 3:38 pm

it’s use is the amusement it provides.

7 Rahul March 13, 2013 at 3:45 pm

Mayor Bloomberg might be eager to fund a soft-drink machine that does nothing but simply shuts itself off.

Frivolous Engineering Co should relocate to NYC…..

8 Bill March 13, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Sounds like this website.

You post.

We comment.

9 Claudia March 13, 2013 at 4:32 pm

“One uses a furry paw to pop out and switch itself off. Another does it with a toy duck’s bill.”

Great, Bill now I am going to have a toy duck Bill image of your comments…and I do like your analogy.

10 Willitts March 13, 2013 at 11:04 pm


11 Brian Graham March 13, 2013 at 5:56 pm

No great stagnation etc.

12 Jamie March 13, 2013 at 7:36 pm

It is the finest machine ever made. It exists solely to amuse us.

Consider it as a combination of alcohol and a screen saver.

13 Steve Sailer March 13, 2013 at 7:58 pm

Wasn’t this invented by the great Claude Shannon? Or did he just build subsequent copies of this for his own amusement?

14 Scott March 13, 2013 at 9:15 pm

It was invented by Claude Shannon & Marvin Minsky.

15 Steve Sailer March 14, 2013 at 1:27 am


16 Cyrus March 13, 2013 at 9:18 pm

So it’s like playing fetch with your dog, except without the unconditional love.

17 Dirck March 14, 2013 at 5:31 am

This sounds like a government project ,except fot the ingenuity and the intelligence to turn itself off .

18 Yancey Ward March 14, 2013 at 10:28 am

Maybe it can be an economist, too.

19 Owen March 14, 2013 at 10:59 am

Are the switches labelled MAGIC / MORE MAGIC?


20 dave March 14, 2013 at 12:03 pm

logical extreme=we’re all going to die some day

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