The earliest reference to the Ultimate Machine that I’ve found is by Arthur C. Clarke from the August 1958 issue of Harper’s Magazine article (also in his book Voice Across the Sea: p. 159, Revised edition, New York: Harper & Row, 1959 and 1974):
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.
With this description in mind, Michal Zalewski has posted about his second build of an Ultimate Machine.
As he says on his build page Shannon’s Ultimate Machine, take 2, the goal was to build an Ultimate Machine that was “elegant, simple, and chillingly sinister”. It’s using an Atmega48P micro-controller and it has a display showing a count of how many times the switch has been toggled.
Michal’s done a great job: very sinister action and the humidor makes for a classy enclosure. With a micro-controller you can program a slower more sinister action as well as adding more function such as a lid motor and led’s. On this machine there is a slight delay after the toggle is switched, then the lid slowly raises before a separate arm slowly reaches out and turns the toggle switch off. The arm then retracts and the lid slowly lowers.
In comparison the Useless Machine has no delay and the arm only operates at one speed (usually too fast). And because of this action, the Useless Machine tends to cause a comic reaction, as apposed to “sinister”. So while the Useless Machine is quite easy to build, it isn’t an Ultimate Machine.
Michal’s build page has a circuit diagram and code but you will still have to prototype your own custom board or use a bread-board. This will hinder the average builder, but what I don’t like about this build is that like the other micro-controller based machines that I’ve seen, this one also doesn’t actually turn itself off. Sure, it turns the toggle-switch off, but the led counter stays lit, so you know the machine is still on.
And it’s using an ac adapter, so it’s tethered to the wall.
Maybe I’m being picky, but so far no one has come up with an simple Ultimate Machine that really lives up to the Clarke description: it’s got to be “sinister” and it has to turn itself off. And no power cords.
So I’ve decided to build my own simple Ultimate Machine and it will use the Arduino platform so that almost anyone will be able to build one. I’ve now got two servos and a couple of switches wired up to an Arduino Mini Pro and I thinking of calling it the Arduino (Ultimate) Machino.
It’s action is creepy, and most important: it really TURNS ITSELF OFF. Stay tuned for the build instructions!