TIME architecture & design

In Praise of a Whimsical, Solar-Powered ‘Do-Nothing Machine’

Brightly colored and emphatically impractical, Charles and Ray Eames' Do-Nothing Machine was exactly the sort of endeavor that sends the more businesslike and pragmatic among us into conniptions.

In an age when every discussion of America’s educational system and the country’s status in the world seems to end with all sides loudly proclaiming the joys of utility—Never mind critical thinking. Never mind the arts. Education is about jobs!—celebrating the purely whimsical might feel like a kind of secular heresy.

But seven short decades ago, two of the most creative and influential figures in America’s cultural life, the husband-and-wife architecture and design team of Charles and Ray Eames, lent their formidable imaginations to the creation of a machine so non-utilitarian that its pointlessness gave the gadget its name: the “Do-Nothing Machine.”

Solar-powered, brightly colored and emphatically impractical, the Eames’ machine was exactly the sort of mechanism that sends the more businesslike and pragmatic among us into conniptions.

“B-b-but,” they sputter, “it doesn’t do anything!”

Yes. Exactly. And that, of course, is the machine’s genius.

[See more in the gallery, “Charles and Ray Eames: Simply Genius”]

Or rather, that’s one part of the machine’s genius. If looked at from a slightly different angle, however, the Do-Nothing Machine actually performs a societal service far more valuable than that provided by, say, the average backhoe, senator or Kardashian. The Do-Nothing Machine, after all, at-once embodies and evokes the spirit of pure, unadulterated originality. Its lack of any specific, hierarchical function or purpose frees it from the burden of meeting expectations, while its intrinsic playfulness subtly challenges other inventors, engineers and designers to step up.

If we could build this lovely, useless little device and power it with sunlight, the Eames seemed to be saying, just imagine the magnificent, useful machines human beings could build if they really put their minds to it.

In the meantime, while we wait for human beings to come up with more of those magnificent, useful machines, we have this wonderful portrait of Charles Eames proudly showing off the Do-Nothing Machine as it spins and wheels in full-on, meaningless whirligig mode.

Beautiful, isn’t it?

Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com

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