When the push button was new people were in panic

The doorbell. The intercom. The elevator. Once upon a time, from the end of the 19th century, pressing the button that activated such devices was a strange new experience. The electric push button, the now commonplace interface between man and machine, was originally a spark of wonder, anxiety and social transformation.

As Media Studies Specialist Rachel Plotnick explains, people feared the electric push button would atrophy human skills. They wondered if such devices would enclose the wonders of technology in a black box: “effortless, opaque, and therefore unchallenged by consumers”. Today, you would probably need to hire an electrician to fix what some kids then knew how to do: electric bells, buttons, and buzzers.

“Some believed that users should creatively interrogate these objects and learn how they functioned as part of a larger electrical education,” says Plotnick. “Others… have suggested that pressing buttons might help users avoid complicated and time-consuming technological experiments. These approaches reflected the attempts of different groups to deal with fears of electricity.

Electric pushbuttons, essentially on / off switches for circuits, first appeared on the market in the 1880s. As with many technological innovations, they have appeared in many places in different forms. Their predecessors were mechanical and manual buttons such as the keys on musical instruments and typewriters. Before electricity, buttons triggered a spring mechanism or lever.

The word “button” itself comes from the French button, which means button or projection, and push or push forward. It is impossible to identify a single origin of the push button, writes Plotnick, but these interfaces included the “inanimate buttons that adorned clothing.” Between 1880 and 1920, hundreds of patent applications were filed for “electric buttons” or “push buttons”.

By the end of the 19th century, many lay people had “a working knowledge not only of electricity, but also of the buttons they pressed and the relationship between the two,” according to Plotnick. Those who promoted electricity and sold electrical devices, however, wanted push-button interfaces to be “simple and hassle-free.” They thought the world needed less thinking and tinkering, and more automatic action. “You push the button, we do the rest” – the Eastman company’s famous slogan for Kodak cameras – could be considered the slogan for an entire lifestyle.

Ultimately, the idea that electricity was some kind of magic would triumph over a more practical and demystifying approach.

Plotnick quotes a 1916 educator and activist lamenting that pressing a button “seems to relieve one of any responsibility for what goes on behind the button.” It resonates now, more than a century later, as technology becomes even more complicated and even more intimately linked to our lives. The “black box” reigns supreme.

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Technology and Culture, Vol. 53, n ° 4 (October 2012), pp. 815-845

The Johns Hopkins University Press and the Society for the History of Technology

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