The nothing box

Hammacher Schlemmer began as a hardware store specializing in hard-to-find tools in the Bowery district of New York City in 1848. Owned by proprietors Charles Tollner and Mr. R. Stern, it became one of the first national hardware stores. Hammacher Schlemmer began printing and distributing a company catalog in 1881. In 1912, it printed its largest catalog to date, spanning 1,112 pages. A hardbound copy of the 1912 catalog is housed in the Smithsonian’s permanent collection. In 1962, one of the new items listed for sale in their catalogue, was a metal box called “The nothing box”.

According to a neglected page about the year 1962 in the company’s history on the Hammacher website, The Beatles purchased hundreds of these: “Hammacher Schlemmer and its New York Store begin selling the first Home Bowling Alley and the “Nothing Box” (subsequently rechristened “The Something Box” to avoid confusion with a similarly-named product)-a box that did nothing but flash lights in a random sequence. The novelty captures the fancy of The Beatles, who purchase hundreds of them as gifts”.

Reportedly, it also caught the attention of President Dwight Eisenhower, who purchased one. Here’s a story from the magazine The New Yorker, December 22, 1962:
Talk story about Hammacher Schlemmer’s Something Box, a metal box that bears on one side eight tiny, blinking lights. It is on display and on sale at Hammacher, & one box is on the desk of Mr. Dominic Tampone, pres. of the firm An acutely accommodating, formidable well-groomed man, Mr. Tampone patted the box. “A terrific item. Sells for $25, & we expect to dispose of a thousand of them by Christmas Day. “What does it do?” “Nothing but blink.” “What does the blink mean?” “Nothing.” Sometime ago, a lady customer brought it into the store & put it on his desk. Her husband, a radio engineer, had made it for her, as a toy. She had found it wonderfully comforting around the house & she wondered if he wouldn’t grow to like it. Mr. Tampone had. Inside the box is a battery, which provides power for the light & it will keep blinking on & off for a year. You can’t turn it off unless you tear the box apart. At first it was called the Nothing Box, but some other concern had a box they called the Nuttin Box, so they changed the name to the Something Box. It isn’t for the man who has everything; it’s for the man who wants nothing and is ready to pay a good, stiff price for it, Mr. Tampone said.

Here’s what the San Francisco Art Exchange says about the box. as they are selling a contact sheet of photos of John Lennon with the box in question: “A series of images of John Lennon smiling, having just had his teeth done in the United States in 1965. While in the US (presumably) John purchased several ‘Nothing Boxes’ from inventor and associate Magic Alex, one of which is featured here. These boxes did just as they promised, nothing. Other than blink of course, until their battery ran out.” The “from inventor and associate Magic Alex” part of the sentence was probably inserted because if you google the nothing box, most places it will state that it was a “Magic Alex” invention, and that Lennon got it from him. Which just isn’t true. John probably bought quite a few of the boxes while Stateside in 1965, to gift friends as Christmas presents, something he never came around to. And that’s probably where the Hammacher website is mistaken, too: The Beatles didn’t buy “hundreds” of them, it was just John and it was probably just 8 boxes that he bought.

John Lennon with the Nothing (or Something) box, 1965. Photo: Brian Duffy

In 2011, the Kenwood Lennon blog quoted Maureen Cleave and Peter Brown about Lennon’s nothing boxes: Maureen Cleave described it thusly: “In the sitting room are eight little green boxes with winking red lights; he bought them as Christmas presents but never got round to giving them away. They wink for a year; one imagines him sitting there till next Christmas, surrounded by the little winking boxes.” For Peter Brown, it was this(ly): “Across one of the cabinet doors (in the sunroom) John had stuck an advertising sticker that said “Milk Is Good”. On the top shelf was a set of black light boxes, twinkling silently, while on the table in the corner a green lava lamp slowly undulated.”
And so it goes on… the Nothing Box is a must-have feature of any self-respecting description of Kenwood; as we’ve seen, John owned several, and liked them too, so the story goes, largely because on acid one can apparently think of nothing better than a box that blinks lights on and off at random until the battery runs out.

Interestingly, FineArt has one of Brian Duffy’s photos of John Lennon with the box and describes it like this:

John Lennon with UFO detector – London 1965

This photo was taken by Duffy in 1965 after the Beatles had returned to the UK from playing at the Shea Stadium New York that had been the highlight of their U.S. tour. Lennon had picked up this box in a New York novelty store which had been sold to him as a ‘UFO detector.’ It had lights that went on and off intermittently and he brought it to Duffy’s studio for the amusement of the studio team.

Why the nothing boxes became associated with “Magic” Yannis Alexis Mardas, we will probably never know. He was a guy from Greece who went to live in London and became friendly with the Beatles. Basically a television repair man, Mardas bragged about inventions he had made, or planned to make, and they subsequently appointed him director of the ill fated electronics division of their Apple company.

“Magic Alex” in the Apple Electronics lab.

According to the ever changing text of Wikipedia, the page about Magic Alex currently states: “Mardas arrived in England in 1965, exhibiting his Kinetic Light Sculptures at the Indica Gallery. He impressed John Lennon with the Nothing Box: a small plastic box with randomly blinking lights, and allegedly claimed that he could build a 72-track tape machine.”

Steve Bradley has more about the Lennon – Magic Alex encounter at Indica in his Arrive Without Travelling blog.

“Magic Alex” passed away at 74 in 2017. A few years earlier, in 2010 he responded to statements in an article by Allan Kozinn in the New York Times in 2008. In the statement, Magic Alex told his story about the Maharishi incident, his work for Apple and and denied having ever promised nor discussed, let alone tried to invent the following gadgets attributed to him (sadly no mention of the nothing box):

1. an X-ray camera which could see through walls

2. a force field which would surround a building with coloured air so that no one could see in

3. a force field of compressed air which could stop anyone driving into one’s car

4. a house which could hover in the air suspended on an invisible beam

5. wall paper which could plug into a stereo system and operate as a “loudspeaker”

6. an artificial sun which was intended to hover over Baker Street and light up the sky during the gala opening of the Beatles clothes shop, the “Apple Boutique” on 4th December 1967.

7. Magic paint which would make objects it was painted on invisible

8. Electrical paint which could be plugged into a wall and would light up the room

9. A flying saucer made from the V12 engines from George Harrison’s Ferrari and John Lennon’s Rolls Royce

10. A force field around Ringo Starr’s drums that would isolate the drum sounds from the rest of the microphones in the studio.

In this connection, Mardas said that he once had a discussion with John Lennon about this topic. Mardas said that it was possible, theoretically, to create an ultrasonic barrier generated by ultrasonic transfusers. This would prevent sound travelling over a certain field. Mardas claims that he never suggested that he would make such a barrier.

You can read Mardas’ full statement here (PDF file).


2 Responses

  1. mpb says:

    are any of these accounts 100% accurate? the “advertising sticker” (as pete brown calls it) wasn’t “milk is good”. it was “safe as milk”, the sticker from the 1st captain beefheart lp. this can be seen here: maybe those are boxes on the shelves?

    • admin says:

      Maureen Cleave’s quote was contemporary, published in the March 4th 1966 edition of the London Evening Standard (the infamous “bigger than Jesus”-interview). So she is likely more reliable than Peter Brown, whose quote is made in hindsight, from his book “The Love You Make” (1983).

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