Watch us try to make ‘Butler in a Box’ work like it’s 1983

Time has not been kind to this Siri and Alexa predecessor.
a black box with the word "hello" in green letters sits on a table next to a lamp
Popular Science

Siri. Alexa. Google Assistant. Butler in a Box? Hold up. While you might not recognize Butler in a Box by its name, you will recognize its function: a voice-activated virtual assistant. Or so it claimed to be. 

Billed as the “World’s first artificial intelligent environmental control system for the home,” the Mastervoice Butler in a Box was first introduced in 1983. In the March 1987 issue of Popular Science, writer Jim Schefter tested the device with its big futuristic promises and hours-long setup time. The gadget claimed to be able to call 16 different people, provide home security, understand four different languages, and turn on electronics using voice commands–all for a steep price tag of $1,495 (or about $4,100 in today’s money). 

By 2024, Butler in a Box wasn’t even a footnote on the Wikipedia pages of its modern successors. But why? Why did we wipe the Butler in a Box from our memories? 

Popular Science’s Kevin Lieber set out to unravel the lofty aspirations and complex history of the gadget. The first step: Acquire a Butler in a Box on eBay. That part was surprisingly easy. Trying to actually use it proved a bit more…challenging

Watch Kevin try to make sense of the 134-page owner’s guide with a goal of getting the Butler in a Box to do a seemingly simple task: turn on a lamp using a voice command. We won’t spoil the ending, but the journey is worth it.

This is just the first episode of the technology show on Popular Science’s newly relaunched YouTube channel. If you want deeper dissections into the forgotten past and the unknowable future of technology, then definitely subscribe.