The Isolator: A 1925 Helmet Designed to Eliminate Distractions & Increase Productivity (Created by SciFi Pioneer Hugo Gernsback)

The anti-dis­trac­tion device is the mod­ern mouse­trap: build a bet­ter one, and the world will beat a path to your door. Or so, at least, will the part of the world engaged in the pur­suits we’ve broad­ly labeled “knowl­edge work.” Even among the knowl­edge work­ers who’ve spent most of the past year in pan­dem­ic-prompt­ed iso­la­tion, many still feel besieged by unend­ing claims on their atten­tion. Laments at hav­ing been ren­dered unpro­duc­tive by con­stant dis­trac­tion go back at least to medieval times, but the pro­posed solu­tions to this long-stand­ing prob­lem change with — and reflect — the times. Take the “Iso­la­tor,” the for­mi­da­ble-look­ing wear­able machine above that debuted on the cov­er of July 1925’s Sci­ence and Inven­tion mag­a­zine.

“Per­haps the most dif­fi­cult thing that a human being is called upon to face is long, con­cen­trat­ed think­ing,” writes inven­tor Hugo Gerns­back in the accom­pa­ny­ing arti­cle. “Most peo­ple who desire thus to con­cen­trate find it nec­es­sary to shut them­selves up in an almost sound­proof room in order to go ahead with their work, but even here there are many things that dis­tract their atten­tion.”

Even absent such nui­sances as “street nois­es” and the “tele­phone bell,” the mind seeks out its own dis­trac­tions as if nat­u­ral­ly com­pelled: “You will lean back in your chair and begin to study the pat­tern of the wall­pa­per, or you will see a fly crawl along the wall, or a win­dow cur­tain will be mov­ing back and forth, all of which is often suf­fi­cient to turn your mind away from the imme­di­ate task to be per­formed.”

Gerns­back­’s solu­tion involves a large hel­met, lined with cork and cov­ered in felt, with a baf­fle for breath­ing and glass eye­holes to see through. Paint­ed black but for two thin bands, the eye­holes make it “almost impos­si­ble to see any­thing except a sheet of paper in front of the wear­er. There is, there­fore, no opti­cal dis­trac­tion here.” To pre­vent drowsi­ness, “the writer intro­duced a small oxy­gen tank, attached to the hel­met. This increas­es the res­pi­ra­tion and livens the sub­ject con­sid­er­ably.” And so we arrive at the set­up pic­tured below, orig­i­nal­ly cap­tioned, “The author at work in his pri­vate study aid­ed by the Iso­la­tor. Out­side nois­es being elim­i­nat­ed, the work­er can con­cen­trate with ease upon the sub­ject at hand.” The Iso­la­tor’s patent appears just above, one of 80 for var­i­ous inven­tions that Gerns­back held in his life­time.

What­ev­er the device con­tributed to Gerns­back­’s pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, there can be no ques­tion that the man got a lot done. Not just a con­trib­u­tor to Sci­ence and Inven­tion but also its pub­lish­er, he over­saw a small media empire whose oth­er peri­od­i­cals includ­ed Every­day Sci­ence and Mechan­ics, Sci­en­tif­ic Detec­tive Month­ly, the sin­is­ter-sound­ing Tech­noc­ra­cy Review, and Amaz­ing Sto­ries, which launched in 1926 as the first mag­a­zine devot­ed entire­ly to sci­ence fic­tion (or “sci­en­tific­tion,” as Gerns­back called it). For his advance­ment of the genre he was hon­ored by the World Sci­ence Fic­tion Society’s Annu­al Achieve­ment Awards, bet­ter known as the “Hugos.” Pulp-fic­tion­al though the Iso­la­tor may have looked in 1925 (as indeed it looks now), it rep­re­sents a gen­uine effort to alle­vi­ate with tech­nol­o­gy a both­er­some aspect of the human con­di­tion — and a prece­dent for the new-and-improved iso­la­tion hel­mets engi­neered for the even more dis­tract­ing world in which we live a cen­tu­ry on.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Focus: Five Talks Reveal the Secrets of Con­cen­tra­tion

The Ben­e­fits of Bore­dom: How to Stop Dis­tract­ing Your­self and Get Cre­ative Ideas Again

The Case for Delet­ing Your Social Media Accounts & Doing Valu­able “Deep Work” Instead, Accord­ing to Com­put­er Sci­en­tist Cal New­port

Pico Iyer on “the Art of Still­ness”: How to Enrich Your Busy, Dis­tract­ed Life by Unplug­ging and Stay­ing Put

Medieval Monks Com­plained About Con­stant Dis­trac­tions: Learn How They Worked to Over­come Them

What Hap­pens When You Spend Weeks, Months, or Years in Soli­tary Con­fine­ment

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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