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Thinking Cap

• May 02, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(ILLUSTRATION: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Never worry about distractions again.

Decades before Twitter, Snapchat, and viral cat videos, inventor Hugo Gernsback bemoaned the difficulty of concentrating on desk work. Even back in the 1920s, noise from the street and the frequency with which “a telephone bell or a door bell rings somewhere … is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts,” he wrote. Even more perniciously: “You are your own disturber practically 50 percent of the time,” always willing to be distracted by the wallpaper’s pattern or a buzzing fly, he warned.

Gernsback’s solution, presented in the July 1925 edition of Science and Invention magazine, was elegant in its simplicity, if not its design: the Isolator, a head-enveloping helmet that sealed out external sounds and sights. Narrow eye slits would prevent the wearer from seeing anything but a piece of paper directly in front of his or her face.

Apart from the danger of being assaulted by coworkers mistaking you for a dangerous alien robot, it seems that wearing the device for more than 15 minutes made you drowsy. So Gernsback (also the creator of a machine that delivered mild shocks to combat at-desk napping, as seen in our January/February issue) added an oxygen tube to keep things lively under the hood. Apparently that still wasn’t enough to give the Isolator consumer appeal.

Today, the battle against workplace distraction is harder fought than ever, despite the availability of noise-canceling headphones and apps like Freedom, which disables your Internet connection for a set amount of time. Maybe sticking your head in a bucket wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Plus, if you do fall asleep in the Isolator, who’s going to know?

Matt Novak
Matt Novak writes about past visions of the future for BBC.com and Smithsonian.com.

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