How the introduction of the push-button in the late 19th century freaked people out

Originally published at: How the introduction of the push-button in the late 19th century freaked people out | Boing Boing



And know what? As much as we like to mock George Jetson, a whole lot of us ended up pushing buttons for a living.


This reminds me of when I learned about “Sabbath Mode” for elevators. For the ultra orthodox who believe that the Sabbath is a day of rest, someone decided that pushing buttons is considered “work”, which is forbidden. Elevators in buildings in Israel are programmed with timers so that on the Sabbath they just start going up and down, automatically stopping at every floor so that people can get on and off without pushing buttons.

So people are still freaked out by buttons.


“Today, you’d probably have to schedule an electrician to fix what some children back then knew how to make: electric bells, buttons, and buzzers.”

Considering what an electrician charges to fix electronics, for the most part today we don’t fix bells, buttons, and buzzers, or other such components, but throw out the whole gizmo and replace it – its a lot cheaper. As someone who own and maintains a 1960s era metallurgical workstation, its worth the cost, but ugh, everytime something non-obvious dies on that its a couple hundred just to get someone out to figure it out and replace the component.


That reinforces the exact point about initial fear of the button. You shouldn’t be calling someone out or paying some specialist to fix bells, buttons and buzzers. We should be fixing them ourselves. What Youtube and were made for.


There are a ton of different interpretations and variations even among Orthodox Jews on that, and what’s an acceptable work-around. For example flicking a switch to turn on an incandescent light is sometimes considered equivalent to lighting a fire, which is prohibited. But having a light that was already turned on prior to Shabbat and rotating an opaque shade to expose or block the bulb is usually considered ok, even though a similar amount of effort would be needed.

So much of Orthodoxy (in many religions, not just Judaism) seems to be about meeting a technical requirement rather than following the spirit of the law. My wife tells me of an older relative of hers that used to pay a goy (gentile) boy from the neighborhood to come into the house on Shabbat and turn lights, stove, etc on and off as needed.


Fun historical fact: Legend has it that President Benjamin Harrison and his wife Caroline refused to touch the switches for the then newly-installed electric lighting in the White House.

I’ve always imagined big, sparky knife switches, but it’s more likely they were quick-break push buttons.


Interesting. A decade ago I was in Israel working for a couple weeks on-site at one of our vendor’s offices, and all these kinds of things fascinated me. For them it was just the way things were; to me it certainly wasn’t a hardship, just a notable difference.

It also happened to be Passover while I was there, and the hotel staff was almost apologetic for the “bland” food available on those days. The fresh fruit was amazing and made such apologies unnecessary, and I was just glad they had staff willing to provide any food at all!


As opposed to the physical exertion involved in walking up seven flights of stairs?


See also using a wire to create a “walled compount” or eruv. Also the pope declaring that ducks were fish, and therefore okay to eat on Fridays.


I’m pretty sure that their definition of work was based on something other than energy measurements using classical physics. As @Otherbrother mentioned above, this seems to have been decided by a rabbinical council who was interested only in meeting the language of a law instead of following its spirit.

Whatever decisions were made that led to the current reality are all in the past, whether they were influenced by fear of the future; if there was corruption, payoffs, or politics involved; or if they were just some senile old men arguing about nonsense; none of that really matters as that’s how they’ve chosen to live today. I just found it interesting.


So were beavers, muskrat and capybara.


Kristen Wiig No GIF by The Lonely Island


Yeah, it wasn’t a serious query on my part, more just rolling my eyes at the hoops a person will jump through with the aim of not making god angry.


Not to keep picking on Judaism (Really! I’ve got lots of Jewish family!) but maybe one of the most extreme work-arounds is the example of Orthodox women who shave their heads bald and wear wigs out in public. The reason for this is a biblical line about a woman’s hair being her glory meant for her husband and it being disgraceful to have it uncovered in public. But a woman in a wig outwardly presents the exact same “disgraceful” image in public, while at home her husband gets a bald wife.

We’re definitely risking veering off-topic here so I’ll just add this Jetsons gif to try to get us back on track:



Give me a knob any day. Buttons make bad user interfaces.

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a one carriage paternoster, then?


Not sure I’d want to pick lift floors with a knob, honestly.

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This was a terrible knob interface.

phone call vintage GIF by US National Archives

Would you rather dial the phone by manipulating the hook switch? The dial regularizes this process.