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Clarke’s Ultimate Machine



I cannot leave Bell Labs without mentioning one more device which I saw
there, and which haunts me as it haunts everyone else who has ever seen it in
action. It is the Ultimate Machine–the End of the Line. Beyond it there is
Nothing. It sits on Claude Shannon’s desk driving’ people mad. (Or sat, as
Shannon is now at MIT.)
Nothing could look simpler. It is merely a small wooden casket the size and
shape of a cigar-box, with a single switch on one face.
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.

Arthur C. Clarke, The Ultimate Machine, Harper’s, Aug. 1958.

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