Future Tense

The Clapper Was a Joke. Alexa Is Having the Last Laugh.

How “clap on, clap off” begat the smart homes of today.

A Clapper sits on a surface with two hands clapping nearby.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Cherine Fahd.

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“Clap on, clap off, it’s The Clapper!” Rarely has an advertising catchphrase been more inane or yet more precise about an object’s function. The Clapper, marketed from the mid-1980s by the American businessman Joe Pedott, is a sound-activated switch that turns appliances on and off with a clap of the hands. Plugging directly into a power socket, it looks like a double adaptor. Two appliances can be plugged into it, each controlled by a different sequence of claps that are programmed into the device. The Clapper’s selling point was convenience. Without moving from your lounge chair or bed you could turn on the television or turn off the light; returning home in the dark, all you had to do was clap for illumination. The Clapper also came with a security feature. In “away” mode, it would switch on a light at any sound, then switch it off and reset itself a few moments later. The Clapper reduced a domestic command to its pure, performative moment: the clap that demands immediate action. Such an act would have been cringeworthy if it hadn’t been couched in the camp humor that pervaded The Clapper’s marketing.

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Now that we converse with Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri, and adjust just about anything in our homes remotely via a smartphone, The Clapper’s claims to convenience seem quaint. Yet it shouldn’t simply be seen as an outmoded novelty. As the patents registering its design reveal, it is part of a chain of innovation in automation and sensing technology that has culminated in today’s smart home. Its first patent, filed in 1985, was for a “Sound activated light switch,” its claim being simply for “the ornamental design,” that is, the outward appearance of the switch. This device was originally known as “The Great American Turn On,” its inventors having engaged Pedott to help market it. When he discovered that the switch didn’t really work— it had a tendency to short-circuit television sets plugged into it—Pedott bought the rights to it and hired an engineer to redesign its inner workings.

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A second patent, filed in 1993, was for a “Method and apparatus for activating switches in response to different acoustic signals,” and includes a flow diagram that describes how The Clapper’s sensing and switching technology works.  In investigating a patent’s claim, assessors research the “prior art,” that is, how it relates to other patents filed for similar or related inventions. Eleven other patents are cited in connection to the second Clapper patent, including a “Wheelchair-mounted control apparatus” filed by New York University in 1978, a “Voice-controlled welding system” from 1979, and a “Method and device for voice-controlled operation of a telecommunications terminal” from 1986. Record is also kept of subsequent patents citing the patent in question. There are currently 89 patents citing The Clapper’s second patent, including an “Intrinsic console with positionable programmable multi-function multi-position controllers” filed by the Canadian Space Agency in 1998, a “Sound-actuated system for encouraging good personal hygiene in toilet facilities” from 2001, “Audible sound detection control circuits for toys and other amusement devices” filed by Mattel in 2003, a raft of patents filed by Skybell Technologies in relation to doorbells, and—perhaps most interesting of all—”Forming computer system networks based on acoustic signals” filed by Apple in 2014.

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Such a set of associated patents upends regular understanding of innovation and technological development. Automated wheelchairs link to industrial machines, mechanized toys, space technology, doorbells and Apple’s advancement of the Internet of Things, all via a sound-activated switch marketed as a novelty. The ability to link this assortment of inventions is the genius of a patent system built on the double condition of disclosure and protection. Protection grants a license for exclusive use; disclosure allows the invention to be made public, enabling the differentiation and protection of further inventions and applications. Particular objects may become extinct, but patterns of invention continue along branching paths.

In the particular anonymous history its patent traces, The Clapper marks a critical threshold. It is the point at which we can distinguish the branching trajectory of “intelligence” in objects. In however primitive a way, The Clapper allowed us to feel as though we were communicating with objects. But the clap was a unidirectional command. Now Alexa and company talk back. They listen and remember, storing our requests as data from which an evermore sophisticated picture of preferences and behavior can be built. Apple’s acoustic network patent from 2014, which discloses “the establishment of data communications between devices based through the use of acoustic signals,” indicates how the tables have been turned: the clap has developed into the code of machine interaction.  What was once the language of our command is today the conduit for the distribution of our data.

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Now an object of retro-kitsch fascination, The Clapper is still marketed by Pedott’s company Joseph Enterprises, Inc., the latest being a Star Wars Darth Vader version that delivers portentous aphorisms about the use of the Force when switching things on and off. Despite this, it is clear the device is functionally extinct as a result of the subsequent inventions to which it is linked. Emerging in the heyday of television marketing, it now has virtually no presence on social media. It comes from a time before the data threshold. It is just an enhanced switch, not a device that gathers and shares information. It doesn’t talk to other devices, except, now, in the voice of Darth Vader’s faux villainy. Yet, up against Alexa’s guile, perhaps such a camp portent should register as critique. Do we indeed underestimate the dark side of home automation?

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Reprinted with permission from Extinct: A Compendium of Obsolete Objects, edited by Barbara Penner, Adrian Forty, Olivia Horsfall Turner & Miranda Critchley (Reaktion Books, $40.00, available from The University of Chicago Press).

For another obsolete object from the book, Flashcube, click here.

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