This years’ friendly challenge will be to see which schools/students can come up with the best idea for a “Useless Box”.
Start a Team!
We invite you to start a competition in your own school and bring us your winners, Or, start a club and have students work together or individually on an idea for submission. The more schools that participate the more fun for all.
Marvin Minsky (1927-2016) was a professor emeritus at MIT Media lab and a pioneer of Artificial Intelligence research. During his graduate work at Bell Labs in 1952, he came up with the idea for a device that he called the “ultimate machine.” He envisioned a simple box with a switch. When a user switched the machine on, a “hand” would emerge from the box and switch it off again. His mentor, Claude Shannon, was apparently amused by the idea and created the first working version which he kept on the desk in his office, no doubt to the interest, delight or confusion of many visitors.
Decades later, the device still intrigues and inspires many “makers.” Today, it is more commonly known as the “Useless Machine,” or “Useless Box.”
Here is what Wikipedia says about the Useless Box https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Useless_machine
The device is widely available as kits or as completed boxes. A quick Internet search will reveal many unique interpretations of the device, from a simple electronic box with a small motor and a few switches like the one above, to far more elaborate boxes that almost seem to have personalities. You’ll find animals coming out of the boxes, multiple switches, temper tantrums and even a box that will hide the switch or run away to keep you from switching it on again.
We encourage you to learn more about this insidious device, see what’s out there, look at plans that others have published, watch the YouTube videos and get inspired. You can start by buying an existing kit if you like, just to see how it works or to get some parts. Then, we’d like to see your interpretation of the useless box. What will you make it out of? How big will it be? Will it be modern, antique, steampunk, futuristic, pretty, ugly? Will it be simple or complex? Will it be completely mechanical, use simple electronic circuits or leverage a microprocessor? Will it have a personality? It’s all up to you. Make more than one if you like! We want you to use your imaginations, so we’ll keep the rules fairly simple:
- The device needs to keep to the basic spirit of the original – a box that physically switches itself off when you switch it on.
- The device should fit within a 24” cube and be light enough for a single student to carry and easily lift onto a table.
- The device needs to be self-powered (i.e. no need for an electrical outlet, water source, external compressor, etc.). You can bring spare batteries or recharge from a stand-alone battery pack if needed. If you’re really old-school, it’s OK if the device needs to be wound up periodically.
- The device needs to be safe. It cannot injure a user in any way (e.g. smash fingers, give electrical shocks, etc.). It cannot use open flames (yes, we’ve seen an example of this). It cannot involve projectiles of any kind. The judges will make the final determination about the safety of the device, so use common sense.
- All the devices will be put on display and students will be trying them out over the course of the day, so your device needs to be sturdy enough to withstand a fair amount of use. We encourage you to have someone from your team on hand to answer questions from judges or guests, and to recharge or repair your device as needed, but this won’t be strictly required.
Prizes will be awarded by judges in three categories:
- Most Creative (the goal here is originality, and yes, we’ve seen the YouTube videos too)
- Most complex mechanism (either mechanical or electronic)
- Fit and Finish (craftsmanship and appearance)
So, get going! Be creative! Learn something new! Take risks on wacky ideas! Most importantly, have fun and keep safe.
Don’t Forget to Register