1887: Pushbuttons in the Times archives

June 16, 2008 | Comment?

The Times (London, not New York) has recently opened its entire archives from 1785-1985 to the public, an incredible trove of history. So naturally, I search for “push-button”, since “button” returns too many bits about clothing.

The first mention of “push-button” in The Times is from March 9, 1887 on page 5. The title is “A New Telephone,” but upon reading it, what is this thing?

PARIS, March 8

I was invited to be present to-day at some telephone experiments between Paris and Brussels with a new apparatus known as the “micro-telephone push-button.” These experiments, which were made on behalf of the two telegraphic administrative departments of France and Belgium, produced a very lively impression on those present, and I believe the new apparatus to be the most perfect yet produced.

Is this type of an event a lost art? The inventor toils away in their laboratory, achieves some success, and invites a select group of colleagues to witness this success. Or is this event what we now call a “public beta”? Let’s invite all our colleagues to see this thing we have made.

As its name indicates, it has the form of an ordinary electric push-button.

This phrase stopped me cold. An “ordinary electric push-button.” First of all, calling it “ordinary” means that the device has been around for a while, people take it for granted, it’s just a part of everyday life. But this is 1887! What was an ordinary push-button in 1887? Notice also the name of this device: micro-telephone push-button. The noun, the essence, the identity of this device is a push-button. A button to us in 2008 is just a component of another product, which could be a radio, an alarm clock, or a telephone, but here the 1887 device itself is a “push-button.” A button on its own doesn’t do anything. It only acts as a trigger to make something else happen. But in 1887 this concept must have been so novel that the push-button itself became the identity of the device. Yet, it was also “ordinary.” Odd.

When the button has been pushed in, and has made a sound at the other extremity, it is taken out, and is found to be attached to a long electric wire. There is thus exposed the telephonic plate, which is extremely sensitive, so that where it is necessary to speak at short distances it is not necessary to come close to the instrument. For communications in the same street, or the same house, the operator places the upper part near himself, and without changing his position he can speak with the correspondent at the opposite extremity. He is not obliged to put his ear to the part which contains the button and brings back the reply. Thus for short distances those who make use of this apparatus speak in their ordinary tone, without changing their customary attitudes. They may sit or walk about, and speak just as if those they are addressing were present. When great distances intervene, as in the experiments performed to-day, in which the speakers and hearers were separated by 200 miles, it is necessary to come nearer to the apparatus, but without being obliged to speak quite close to it.

This isn’t quite a telephone. Sounds more like an intercom or walkie-talkie. Or, speakerphone.

Notice also: “without changing their customary attitudes,” an early shout-out to the notion that new technology is better when adapting or enhancing existing patterns of behavior, rather than forcing changes in behavior.

But what makes this apparatus the most successful of telephonic instruments is, that it can be made for half-a-crown, that is to say, for not more than the price of the ordinary push-button. Now, as it can be fitted to the electric wire of the ordinary ringing apparatus, it follows that it introduces a complete change in our ordinary modes of intercourse.

Lots of “ordinary”s. Oh, but now it’s about to change our ordinary modes of intercourse. I assume this refers to how we communicate with each other, rather than other forms of intercourse.

At front doors, in the interior rooms of houses, everywhere in short, where the ordinary electric buttons are used, the telephonic button may be introduced.

Sounds more like an intercom or speakerphone.

It will by this means be possible to give or receive instructions, to know who is knocking at the door, to communicate in short, by speaking as well as by ringing. On the advantage of this in everyday life it is unnecessary to dwell. The railway companies are making experiments with this apparatus as a means of communication between compartments of carriages. It is being fitted up on trial in hotels. I have seen it at work at the door of a private house, where I was replied to by those within without their having stirred from their places, and without the door being opened. Between Paris and Brussels, this instrument, costing half-a-crown, worked with admirable precision, and it was not altogether without an eerie feeling that I listened to a voice with a slight Belgian accent coming to me from a distance of more than 200 miles.

It’s incredible how many of our technological inventions are based on the human need to connect with each other, from the telephonic button down to Twitter. The forms change, the methods change, even the synchronous nature of conversation changes, but it all boils down to communication and connection.

On the advantage of this in everyday life it is unnecessary to dwell.


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