No new info about the origin of that particular phrase, but I have to share this from this morning’s obituary of gadget-maker Don Poynter.
But if some of the countless novelty items Mr. Poynter invented and produced were on the lowbrow side, there is no denying the subtle brilliance of one of his earliest and most successful ones: the Little Black Box. Created in 1959, it was an unadorned box with a switch on top. Activate the switch and the box vibrated a bit; then a hand emerged from it and turned the switch off.
That was it: a device whose only purpose was to turn itself off. Other people in the same period had explored iterations of the so-called useless machine, but few saw the marketing possibilities as clearly as Mr. Poynter.
“Reps at a New York trade show kept asking what it did,” he told the alumni magazine of the University of Cincinnati, his alma mater, more than 40 years later. “I said, ‘It does absolutely nothing, except switch itself off.’ Everyone thought I was crazy, but I sold it to Spencer Gifts. In one month, it became the hottest item they ever had.”