Maybe you blame your smartphone or your open office for the fact that you can’t concentrate at work. But distraction isn’t exactly a new problem: In 1925, inventor Hugo Gernsback published a design for the Isolator, a creepy-looking helmet that blocks out sound and vision so someone can focus on their work.
As the Times Signal, an Ohio newspaper, explained the problem at the time:
Suppose you are sitting in your study or your work room, ready for the task. Even if the window is shut, street noises filter through, and distract your attention…A telephone bell or a door bell rings somewhere, which is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thought.
The helmet is intended to almost completely eliminate noise. Gernsback estimated that the first version, made of solid wood, lined with cork, and covered with felt, would cut out 95% of outside sounds. Another version added a cushion of air to make it even quieter.
Gernsback thought that sight would be equally distracting–as the Times Signal put it, “Even if supreme quiet reigns, you are your own disturber practically 50% of the time. 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 …”
To help eliminate visual distraction, the small pieces of glass in front of the eyes on the helmet are painted black–with a thin line of paint scraped away, just enough to see a piece of paper directly in front of you.
When he realized that people were getting sleepy under the hood, Gernsback also added an oxygen tank.
The design is weirdly similar to some current ideas. A cork helmet, from Belgium-based designer Pierre-Emmanuel Vandeputte in 2015, drops down from the ceiling to temporarily surround you in silence. A felt bubble from Finnish designers blocks out some sound and the view of nearby desks.
The Isolator, it seems, was ahead of its time. And it’s a reminder that even if technology is demanding more of our attention, it’s not the only problem; people have always had trouble focusing. It’s almost like we shouldn’t make them sit in an office all day.