A self-build gadget for “endless” festive fun

The mesmeric Useless Box is retro, rewarding… and perhaps even profound

Useless Box, from £8
Useless Box, from £8 | Image: Hugh Threlfall

Of all the products lying around Technopolis Towers in 2017, this has caused the most merriment and discussion. It is called the Useless Box and I built it in a couple of hours from a kit I bought on eBay through a small company in China. There is no one Useless Box brand or design – dozens of them have cropped up online these past few months. 

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And what does a Useless Box do? Well, as you click the old-fashioned light switch on the top, the lid opens a little, and in a fraction of a second, a plastic hand reaches out from inside the machine to nudge the switch off again, whereupon the hand darts back into the dark and the lid closes. It’s a near mesmeric action you will perform hundreds of times just for the satisfaction, the whirring mechanics and endearing, well, uselessness.

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Yet the Useless Box makes a philosophical point close to my heart, and few products I feature do that. I have long believed that if a truly intelligent machine is ever built, it will take stock of the world around it and promptly turn itself off. Which for me is exactly the scenario the Useless Box illustrates. Useless, then? Maybe not.

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