Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Push-Button Promises

• January 25, 2013 • 8:17 AM

Big thinkers have been selling the push-button as the key to the future since way before the Jetsons. Try the 19th century.

1903 push button served

Partial cartoon about push-buttons (October 18, 1903 Times Dispatch in Richmond, Virginia)

Authors, advertisers and inventors of the 1950s and ’60s all promised us that the push-button was the key to a future of leisure. In the world of tomorrow you’ll just push a button to clean the house. Push a button and dinner will be served. You’ll even push a button to walk the dog.

Nowhere was this promise made more explicit than in the 1962 animated ABC series The Jetsons where George pushes a button just a few times a day to earn his living. Meanwhile, his wife Jane complains of “push-button finger,” a malady that strikes the homemaker of the future who pushes maybe half a dozen buttons in the course of a day.

But the promise of the push-button as the gateway to a life of leisure has its origins far earlier than the Space Age. Dating back to the late 19th and early 20th century, the push-button quickly evolved into the perfectly simple symbol of modernity back when electricity itself was first being introduced to American homes.

George Jetson's push-button world of leisure (from the first episode of The Jetsons in 1962)

George Jetson’s push-button world of leisure (from the first episode of The Jetsons in 1962)

Whether it was for ringing doorbells, illuminating lamps, hailing domestic servants, or turning on any number of new electrical appliances, the push button arrived in full force as an interface that was supposed to save time and generally make life easier. Just push a button, and it’s all done automatically!

As Americans came into contact with more and more machines in the late 19th century, the push button was supposed to ameliorate heightened anxieties about the complexity of life—what Rachel Plotnick describes as a “pervasive cultural craving for efficient relationships between humans and machines.” Plotnick writes about the button as the interface of leisure in her 2012 paper “At the Interface: The Case of the Electric Push Button, 1880-1923.”

The wealthy were the early targets of this message praising the “automatic” power of the push-button, as they naturally were the early adopters who could afford things like electric light and push-button appliances. But the button was sold as a symbol of luxury—the interface of the future—even before household electricity was the norm. Plotnick uses an ad from 1888 as one example of when the wealthy embraced the push-button even in the seemingly old fashioned use of gas lighting:

One tactic employed by manufacturers and distributors of push buttons and their associated devices involved promoting these switches as pleasurable luxuries that would make life easier for the wealthier set. J. H. Bunnell & Co., in its “Illustrated Catalogue and Price List of Telegraphic, Electrical & Telephone Supplies, No. 9″ of 1888, for example, advertised “The Automatic,” a wall-plate control system that would allow its opulently dressed user to turn gas lights on and off remotely. Outlining the button’s various uses, the catalog described a house entirely run by buttons: “One in the front hall, to be lighted by buttons placed at the front door and also by the chamber door, or one in the cellar, with press-bttns [sic] or keys at the head of the cellar stairs… or one in the family chamber, to be lighted from the bedside chamber door, are all luxuries which, after accustomed use, become necessities to household comfort.”

1888 push button ad

1888 ad for a push-button switch which targeted the wealthy (Smithsonian/Plotnick)

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th the push-button would become more associated with the the electrical rather than gas-driven promises of the future. And the push-button was able to conjure electrical luxuries—as if by magic. Plotnick explains:

In order to sell this vision of electricity, experts often relied on tropes of magic and effortlessness to embody users’ experiences with buttons. In 1916, for example, the Society for Electrical Development chose a poster for “America’s Electrical Week” from among 781 entries that whimsically celebrated the benefits of button-powered electricity. An electrician, in a positive endorsement of the poster, enthused: “Gone is the ancient lamp. Now it is the gentle touch of a button and forthwith comes the Genie, Electricity.” The campaign and its admirers indicated that users needed no knowledge or skill to make electrical miracles possible, as long as a button stood at hand. The user interface heralded electricity seemingly from the heavens, making electrical circuits, wires, plugs, and other mechanisms invisible.

Of course, just like The Jetsons, Americans of the early 20th century weren’t above poking fun at the idea that push-buttons would solve all our problems. The October 18, 1903 issue of The Times Dispatch in Richmond Virginia ran a cartoon featuring Professor Jyblitts who sits down for an “automatic luncheon.” A sign on the wall reads “You press the button, the machinery does the rest.” Robot arms help him with the removal of his hat and coat and he simply presses buttons to order and be served lunch. Pressing a button even automatically clears the table. However, by the last panel his push button lunch is ruined by the smoking, hulking machine that just moments earlier seemed like a godsend.
1903 push button
Today we push buttons in elevators, on our coffee makers and in our cars without thinking twice about the often complex machinery that makes these magical devices work. But it would seem the phrase “push-button” itself has picked up a fair number of negative connotations on its journey here to the early 21st century.

While an electric car’s “push-button start” may be a positive selling point, we’re more likely to hear it used as a derisive term to bemoan the distance humans have from the cold, mechanized consequences of those buttons. With each passing year we seem to move closer to fully automatic destruction with what critics call push-button war, but as a Korean War-era cartoon from 1952 lamented, we have yet to invent something like push-button peace.

Matt Novak
Matt Novak writes about past visions of the future for BBC.com and Smithsonian.com.

More From Matt Novak

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.