Solarbotics Useless Box

What I Learnt When I Built a Useless Box

The useless box, originally invented in the 1930s, had its viral moment a few years ago, with its own Wikipedia page, hundreds of different variations being sold online and Youtube videos raking in up to to 10 million views. Also known on the Internet as the ultimate machine, don’t touch me box, or leave me alone box, it is essentially a machine that really, really wants to remain switched off. Despite seeming rather standoffish and passive-aggressive, this nondescript, maybe-evil box can actually be an excellent tool for STEAM learning.

Instead of premade as the finished product, it is being sold as a kit by Solarbotics, to hobbyists, tinkerers, educators and learners alike. While the uneducated eye may understandably view this endeavour as fruitless and time-wasting, experienced tinkerers can challenge themselves by putting their own creative twist on the useless box using parts from the kit. Existing examples on the Internet include a useless candle or a coin-stealing coin box while beginners can learn soldering skills and simple circuitry.

So here we are, clearly late to the trend but here nonetheless. Overall, it is a fun and educational kit that’s guaranteed to bring you hours of enjoyment. Let’s get unboxing!


The Kit

Unboxing of Solarbotics Useless Box on GetHacking Online Store

The kit, aimed at adults and teenagers aged 12 and above, comes with a pretty comprehensive illustrated guidebook, acrylic parts for the box shell, a motor set, circuit board, battery pack, switches, and more. Pretty neat!

Layout of components and parts from Solarbotics Useless Box on GetHacking Online Store

One thing to note, the screws, nuts and bolts are all packaged together, and it may be a little hard to differentiate between the different screws required for different parts of the project, so a ruler does come in handy. In addition, you will require soldering equipment, 2 AA batteries, wire strippers, a screwdriver and tape to complete the project. 


The Circuitry

There’s a pretty handy and easy-to-comprehend diagram in the guidebook for those making the kit to follow along. Yes, if you want the circuit diagram, you’ll have to purchase the kit. But I’ll describe how it works.

Motor assembly from the Solarbotics Useless Box on GetHacking Online Store

Basically, when the switch is toggled, the limit switch inside the box closes, and current flows through the circuit, turning the motor such that the arm is able to extend out of the box and toggle the switch. This causes current to flow in the opposite direction, the arm retracts and hits the limit switch lever inside the box, opening the switch and breaking the flow of the current. Yay physics. Now on to actually making the thing.


The Soldering

The guidebook has pretty comprehensive soldering instructions, but do remember to continually refer to the pictures given to determine which parts are supposed to be soldered together. Needless to say, the tip of a soldering iron is hot and can be dangerous, thus do pay attention to your surroundings when soldering. Also make sure that the tip of the soldering iron does not touch anything it’s not supposed to touch while it is still on, be it the tabletop, other components in the kit, or your own skin. And no, I’m not saying this because I burned myself a few times And burned a hole in my guidebook.

Soldered Motor from Solarbotics Useless Box on GetHacking Online Store

As an amateur who has only soldered twice or so before taking on this kit, it can be a little hard to avoid the plastic that surrounds small contact points, but with a little practice, it’s definitely manageable.

Using holding hand on Circuit Board from Solarbotics Useless Box on GetHacking Online Store

It can be helpful to hold the circuit board or motor in place with a clip while soldering to ensure they stay steady and don’t move around while soldering. Ensure that the exposed ends of the wires don’t end up in contact after soldering, and that the solder at the different contact points on the circuit board doesn’t pool into each other to avoid making unnecessary connections that can alter the current flow in the circuit. Do make sure the connections are sturdy and that the parts are well-soldered together, and test the circuit with two AA batteries in the battery pack. 

This kit can thus be a good starting point for beginners who want to learn to solder. However, it must be noted that soldering equipment is not a common household item found behind your average kitchen counter, and it is thus hard to imagine beginners or casual hobbyists picking this kit up for a personal at-home DIY. Instead, educators can consider purchasing this kit in bulk for a design and technology curriculum for students, since most schools do have access to soldering materials.


The Assembly

Assembling Acrylic pieces of the Solarbotics Useless Box on GetHacking Online Store

Time for the most satisfying part of the project: peeling off all the acrylic covers. The guidebook suggests using a Philips #1 screwdriver for assembly, though I’m sure most small screwdrivers would work just fine. The instructions here are pretty straightforward, with most connections made with T-slot construction, though do be careful when screwing the parts together such that the acrylic does not crack.

Assembled insides of the Solarbotics Useless Box on GetHacking Online Store

One problem I did have with this portion was that screwing in the hinges was particularly difficult. I was unable to screw the hinges tightly against the acrylic shell, which may be due to my using a slightly larger than recommended screwdriver. Thus, I had to settle with loose hinges, taping the edges of the acrylic pieces together to secure them. On the other hand, I realised that tightly screwing the hinges in would result in the sharp ends of the screws poking out inside the box, which may be a hazard towards young children when the box is opened. 


The Verdict

All in all, this nifty educational kit can be a fun project for teenagers and adults alike. Although this product doesn’t allow much room for creativity tech-wise, with the functionality (or lack thereof) of the box being quite fixed, younger kids may still unleash their creativity in decorating the box. One major drawback of the kit is that soldering equipment is rather inaccessible to the masses, but educators should consider adding this to their educational curriculum so that students can try their hand at soldering and circuitry.

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