If I stood on the bowbacked chair, I could reach
the light switch. They let me and they watched me,
A touch of the little pip would work the magic.
— Seamus Heaney, “Electric Light,” 2001
At midnight on December 31, 1965, Pope Paul VI pressed a button in his apartment in the Vatican to switch on the lights illuminating the statue of Cristo Redentor on Mount Corcovado, in Rio de Janeiro, some 6,000 miles away. The installation, planned by the prominent American lighting designer Richard Kelly, was part of the city’s 400th anniversary celebrations, which included parades and festivities and, on the last day of the year, thousands of white candles and flowers along the beach, women dressed in white, and copious amounts of the “white” alcohol cachaça. Having the pope illuminate the mountaintop statue was part of a typically Cariocan mix of the religious and political or, as one newspaper put it, progress and paganism, consecration and commerce:
At the stroke of 12 (Rio time) — Pope Paul VI touched a button in the Vatican and illuminated, with a new set of floodlamps, the figure of Christ the Redeemer that overlooks the city from atop Corcovado Mountain. Air Force planes flew overhead, dropping “silver rain” of bits of foil painted with the name of the State Bank. 1
It is unlikely that the pope’s button controlled the electricity flowing to the lights at the base of the statue. More likely, he sent a signal to an operator situated near the switches. But by touching a button, the pope activated a virtual circuit that linked his own body to the mountaintop figure of Christ half a world away. The gesture reaffirmed — indeed, embodied — the connection between the Brazilian state and the Catholic Church. But it did so in distinctly electrical terms: the smallest of human gestures, a touch, summoned a force of nature, instantly and across a great distance.
The new year’s eve drama in Rio underscores the ways in which the workings of electric light are resonant with divine action. First, it can be exercised from far, far away — the pope was on the other side of the Earth. It is effortless — the pope had only to touch a button (God, presumably, does not struggle in the creation of earthly events). It is instantaneous — the pope’s will, his gesture, the visual effect, and the crowd’s awe were virtually simultaneous. And, like God, electricity is unseen, known only through its effects, and historically has been most visible as one or another form of radiant light. As such, electric light recalls ancient religious iconography, despite its technological provenance. 2 Light is laden with literary and pictorial tropes heavy with scriptural significance; at many points in Western religious history it has indexed the very presence of God. But rather than address such momentous matters, here I will look in a different direction: toward the button.
The switch became a live-action metaphor of the authority and ability to get things done.
Although small and easy to overlook, the button, or switch, is a highly charged interface between individuals and technological systems. Turning a light on, instantly and at a distance from the lamp, at first felt like a kind of magic, especially since electricity was so unlike other fuels or forces or sources of light. With a switch, we could change the space around ourselves, visually at least, on a whim. It put the resources of what soon became a vast infrastructure at hand, literally. A common trope held that the pressing of an electric button was an easier way to summon the “modern genie” of great power than Aladdin rubbing his lamp. 3 Politicians seized on the switch’s powers of instantaneity and action at a distance to inaugurate a new way to celebrate public works projects: the switch became a live-action metaphor of the authority and ability to get things done. With all these uses, the switch generated a visual space whose merit was measured best by the gap between its effortless operation and its broad scope of effect. Its symbolic power rested on a disproportion: the minimum haptic gesture sparked the maximum optical transformation.
A Material Culture of Controls
Another point of difference, in which gas cannot possibly compete, is the manner in which the electric light can be turned on and off, and which admits of the switch being placed at any convenient point. This is denied to gas.
— Edward De Segundo, 1893 4
The light switch is part of a long history of control mechanisms that regulate an otherwise continuous flow. In this sense it is antique in conception, akin to the dams or sluices that control the movement of water. Although there is no evidence for valves in ancient oil lamps, the Roman Egyptian author Hero of Alexandria described something akin to an automatic fuel supply that worked by means of a pneumatic contrivance. 5 A window shade or shutter might be considered a kind of switch that controls the presence of visible light; similarly, a door controls movement between inside and outside a building or from one room to another. 6
Electricity, an invisible force whose operation lay outside ordinary experience, was often explained by means of a hydraulic analogy employing terms such as hydraulic head, flow rate, and pipe diameter to help students grasp electrical potential, current, and resistance. 7 The analogy, although inexact, remains common today.
The light switch is part of a long history of control mechanisms that regulate an otherwise continuous flow.
The English term “switch” derives from a riding switch, a long stick used to indicate to a horse the rider’s interest in greater speed, essentially to convey a rider’s will wordlessly and convincingly. Railway operators picked up the term in the 1820s to designate the set of rails used to shunt trains from one track to another; the lever an operator pulled to effect the shift was called a “switch-rod.” More generally, the switch was a means to change the configuration of a track or circuit, which facilitated its application to electrical circuits. Later in the 19th century, the term was used to describe a telegraph key; with its then unprecedented speed of transmission — as if thought itself leapt across continents — the switch-activated telegraph enabled what seemed nothing less than a compression of time and a collapse of space. By the end of the century, “switch” denoted a manipulatable tool used to regulate potentialities within a larger current of objects or forces, most notably electricity. 8
Earlier forms of lighting were not so much switched on as they were prepared for illumination. Generating light from an oil lamp, for instance, required several steps — removing a protective enclosure for the flame; assuring the fuel supply; examining the wick; igniting it (no small task in the days of the tinder box, before the commercialization of wooden friction matches); adjusting the flame; and, finally, lowering the enclosure. 9 These steps were sufficiently laborious to preclude the use of any term suggesting an instantaneous operation. Although gas lamps were simpler to light than oil lamps, they still required a sequence of steps that had to be repeated in turn for each lamp. 10
While valves had already become familiar as cities were interwoven with water and gas lines, electric switches became common only in the late 19th century. As the electrical industry grew, switches began to appear across a range of new commercial products including irons, fans, toasters, kettles, and home sewing machines. After visiting an exhibition in Philadelphia in 1884, one reviewer noted, “The alternate making and breaking of an electrical circuit is an old device, but its recent applications have brought it into the domain of marketable commodities.” 11 But even then switches were a novelty, and unthinkingly making and breaking circuits was a habit yet to be acquired. For those who could afford electricity in their own homes, it was lights, more than anything else, that were getting switched on and off. 12
Engineers and inventors designed many configurations of switches to account for a range of situations. Switches had to tolerate line voltages that were more variable than they are today, and to accommodate higher loads over time as more devices were added to existing circuits. Engineers had to consider the location of a switch in relation to the heat it gave off or to the consequences of failure. Even variations in users’ dexterity could be a factor. For instance, with a knife switch, a hinged lever that was raised and lowered into a metal slot, slow operation could generate sparks or electrical arcs and create a fire hazard. Some early switches were little more than a “circuit-closing screw” operated directly at the fixture, as described in an 1880 patent filed by Thomas Edison, which required someone to twist a contact screw one way to turn on the light and the opposite way to turn it off, similar to a valve in a gas lamp. 13
The design of a switch, even its necessity, was not immediately obvious in consumer settings. Another Edison patent, from 1881, used gas piping as conduit and included such details as bulb fittings and insulation from the gas meter. But it made no mention of a switch within what was supposed to be a complete system of home electric lighting. 14 In just a few years, however, manufacturers were producing a wide range of light switches with various types of actuators, or controls, whether toggle, rocker, push-button, rotary, and so on. The convenience of the switch was so great that manufacturers even began to offer electrical switches for gas lamps that could open a valve and ignite the gas from a remote plate on the wall, thereby acquiring “one of the great advantages of the incandescent electric light” that was just then threatening to displace gas altogether. 15
We have chained a giant that we do not know … at the press of a button he answers to our call.
— W. J. Keenan and James Riley, 1897 16
The switch was more than a practical and convenient means of turning lights on and off. In the early days of electrification it was also an assurance that electricity — a potentially lethal force long familiar only as lightning — could easily be controlled. The physics of electricity lay outside the grasp of the public, which recoiled at descriptions of accidental electrocutions, trembled at the thought of planned electrocutions, or read expert testimony regarding the electrical industry’s intensification of the natural atmospheric charge, which, some believed, could accumulate and one day explode. Court cases involving electrical mishaps helped generate public support to regulate the industry. 17 In 1896, after more than 300 pages that attempted to answer the question, “What is electricity?,” a Harvard physics professor came to the simple conclusion, “Ignoramus ignorabimus — (We are ignorant, and we shall remain ignorant),” before unhelpfully pointing out that the Earth is already bathed in electromagnetic waves from the Sun. 18
Early consumers worried about wires in the home, fearful of shock or concerned that electricity could leak from outlets.
Even into the 20th century consumers worried about having wires in their home, fearful of shock or concerned that electricity could leak from outlets, as James Thurber humorously recalled his grandmother believed. 19 Little wonder that the first explanations of electricity for a general audience, from the 1880s, emphasized its “complete amenability to control” by means of well-placed switches. 20 The surest testament to both the safety and ease of electric lights was the claim that even a child could operate them safely, a trope employed in the promotion of many new technologies:
If you will watch me going the round of this room, you will see how unscientific are the means used to turn on and off the lights. One has simply to twist the switch near the door to put out the whole of the lights in the room. …
Can it really be said, after this, that the electric light does not fulfill the condition of being under perfect control? Why, my little boy, of seven years old, knows as much about this part of the subject as I do, and, with a switch attached to his bedside, can turn on the light in his bed-room whenever he requires it. 21
Despite its diminutive appearance, the switch guaranteed “perfect control,” evident in its easy operation by a diminutive person. Whatever its technical configuration, the switch domesticated electricity, tempering it sufficiently to bring it inside the home and make it serve at the pleasure of even the most innocent occupant. It confirmed that ordinary lived space, collapsed and reconfigured by modernization, could be made whole and amenable. It promised greater personal control even as it expedited the reach of electricity into intimate realms such as bedrooms and, in so doing, quickened the pace of modern life to the twist, flip, press, or snap of a switch. You could even argue that the switch recoded modernization as a triumph of individual will over sophisticated corporate technologies. For all these reasons it acquired an emotional and psychic register.
Whatever its technical configuration, the light switch domesticated electricity.
Exercising control over environmental threats, as Sigmund Freud suggested, is an early developmental challenge. He recalled his baby grandson throwing objects across a room, saying what Freud heard as the German word fort, meaning “gone” or “away,” and then, in retrieving the object, saying da, or “there.” Freud theorized that the child was symbolically replaying his mother’s temporary absence, which, however painful, was also prelude to her return. Among the rationales Freud offered for this behavior was that the child was expressing “an instinct for mastery” of his world that required a shift from passive witness to active agent, at least on a symbolic level. The boy mastered the loss of his mother and rehearsed her return, a game validated by her reappearance. 22
Electric lights do not figure in Freud’s explanation, but it takes only a small step to liken the two poles of the fort-da game, not-here and here, to the off and on of the switch, especially in the face of modern anxieties about individual powerlessness in complex environments. Switches are clearly both implements and symbols of mastery. Pressing the button, or flipping the lever, was not only a way to control a new and threatening technology. It represented as well a kind of self-control; a reassurance that the threats posed by the penetration of technology into everyday life — the wires concealed within walls; the switches and fixtures bristling from surfaces — would not similarly penetrate the self and disrupt individual equanimity.
Freud’s interpretation of his grandson’s psychic development may be challenged, but his theory offers a model for understanding the role of the light switch in the formation of a modern sense of the lived environment. Far from being a neutral void into which objects are placed and through which systems are threaded, the space generated by the switch was an activated space. It was a space organized to enhance visual perception and animated by its guaranteed responsiveness to an individual’s will. For this reason, the space illuminated by the switch can be deemed a volitional space: a volume summoned into visual presence by the sheer desire to see. A mastery of self can be understood to entail a mastery of space or, perhaps more precisely, a mastery of the self-in-space, wherein self-control is predicated on spatial control. Each repetition of the off-on cycle promises that another cycle will follow: more technological mediation of everyday life coupled with easier and more reliable control.
The space of the switch was an activated space, summoned into visual presence by the sheer desire to see.
The switch induced a new and modern space defined not by size, shape, structure, material, use, ornament, or any other conventional measure of architectural merit. Rather, it conjured a space distinguished by its instantaneous appearance, willed into visibility, as if volition alone were enough to make it so. Indeed, the very idea of a volitional space presumes that individual will is as much a part of the transformation created by electric light as the switch mechanism’s metal contacts. Visibly projecting willpower into a third dimension, volitional space is the amalgam of technology and desire, an image of desire reliably fulfilled. 23
In earlier spectacles — for instance in theaters — the viewer was passive. The switch allowed the viewer to produce the spectacle. Perhaps the most remarkable example is what has come to be called “path lighting,” wherein lights can be switched on and off so that one moves through an otherwise darkened building within an envelope of light. This was made possible by easy-to-use three-way switches that allowed lights to be switched in sequence. As one lighting advocate explained to homeowners, “The householder should be able to visit the entire building, commencing with the hall door, from attic to cellar and back, without once being left in the dark, or leaving lamps burning on any floor behind him as he makes the journey.” 24 Facilitating a journey through domestic space operated by a series of buttons, path lighting recapitulated the older method of navigating the dark by holding up a candle.
The light switch, to put it another way, is a modern prosthetic, as much a material extension of the will to see as an instrument of control. As electricity spread through cities in the early 20th century, the tiny drama of homeowners switching their lights on and off rehearsed and thereby reinstated a sense of agency otherwise diminished by the infiltration into daily life of poorly understood power networks which required specialized trades to maintain. The switch did not merely turn lights on and off. It also brought about a simple but impressive new reality: for the first time in history, ordinary people could alter the visual appearance of their living quarters at will and instantly. From there followed a host of other possibilities.
The President’s Finger
As soon as it is dark enough to need the artificial light, you turn the thumbscrew and the light is there.
— New York Times, 1882 25
Is not this somewhat the way that God works?
— The Independent, 1893 26
With its ready metaphor of electrical energy couched as volitional power, the switch played a starring role in a new form of political theater, one that continues to the present day. The actors were varied, ranging from business executives and mayors to presidents and popes. But the plot was always the same: a crowd assembled at dusk, often to listen in the gloaming to a speech about progress; a button was pushed and a lighted landscape abruptly loomed, as if the people’s will were concentrated in the fingertip of its political representative and transmuted in a flash into radiant accomplishment. The transformation usually inspired an audible gasp. Whatever needed inaugurating, a politician’s finger could reliably be found inching its way across the podium toward a switch that would reveal a new and modern triumph.
Millions saw their first incandescent lights switched on at expositions. From Philadelphia in 1876 to Paris in 1937, electric lighting was an explicit theme and a leading fairground attraction; switching on the lights was an entertainment in itself. On May 1, 1893, at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition, President Grover Cleveland pressed a lever to start the dynamos that would provide electricity to the vast array of equipment, from engines to arc lights. He surrounded himself with descendants of Christopher Columbus’s family, as well as his vice president and cabinet members, to vivify the historical narrative. The lever itself was wired to a temporary circuit hooked up between the switch and a single-cell dry battery, which in turn was wired to the enormous Corliss engine standing in Machinery Hall, ready to unleash its energy. 27 A reported 100,000 visitors showed up to witness the president’s finger as it hovered over and then dropped down to touch a button mounted on the lever’s end.
The President’s speech likened the instantaneous effect of the switch to the achievement of American ideals.
The pedestal supporting the lever in Chicago, golden in some reports, was “a pyramid of blue, gold and plush 12 inches high” and intended to represent America and Spain. A small plaque at its base bore the dates 1492 and 1893, making clear that with the closing of the electrical circuit at the exposition, a four-century historical circuit would also be completed, the United States having evolved to become a leader among nations. 28 Cleveland’s speech likened the effect of the switch to the achievement of American ideals. He punctuated his conclusion by raising his finger over the button as if his words, conveyed through his touch, might themselves turn the wheels of progress. As a contemporary account put it: “As he pronounced the last word he touched the ivory button of the key of gold on the desk before him, and the spark of electricity flew to do the President’s bidding.” 29 It was surely a stirring moment, not least for Cleveland, from whose simple gesture an entire world was set in motion: “When he touches the button every wheel starts, every process of beautiful production goes on before our eyes.” 30
The meaning of the moment was lost on no one. Pressing a button in public placed the button presser at a potent threshold between worlds, an intersection between authority and the territory it oversaw. With a frightening force of nature harnessed to beam light and start engines, the button presser appeared Olympian. A newspaper editorial made the point plain just after President Cleveland switched on the power in Chicago:
Deeds of grandeur or deeds of terror are accomplished with less immediate effort and at a distance from their effect. The touch of a button executes a murderer or starts all the enginery of the Columbian Exposition. Is not this somewhat the way that God works? … The touch of a button by the President starts into active motion the ponderous machinery of the Exposition. Where was he? Invisible, somewhere else. … Where was He whose will created and set in motion the processes of nature …? We do not see him; perhaps we forget him; but had we looked we should have found his finger at the keyboard of the universe. 31
Buttons lightly pressed turned into a leitmotif of the exposition, as switching on the lights became a nightly entertainment. Charles Edward Bolton, a turn-of-the-century travel writer, recounted the crowds that gathered nightly to witness “the silent touch of an unseen hand” that illuminated the bulb-spangled Edison Tower and a host of other devices: “Other buttons touched, revealed throughout the hall the splendid workings of mind with that subtle something, which is called electricity, till the whole became a marvelous fairy-land.” 32 Still other buttons allowed fairgoers to take pictures with the Eastman Kodak instant camera, introduced five years before. To underscore its simplicity, the company launched one of the most famous advertising campaigns in history: “You press the button, we do the rest.” 33 The easy exercise of mastery over technical processes merely by pressing a button was said to be “really the prophetic cry of the age.” 34 In both cases — the electric light and portable camera — tiny taps sparked visual revolutions.
In other words, let us “turn on the light!”
— Franklin Roosevelt, 1932 35
Switches became a staple of political performances. Lighting Christmas trees from afar was an annual favorite. In 1903 Theodore Roosevelt pressed a button to start the holiday season, as would Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Harry S. Truman and other presidents in their turn. Central to these events was “the simple action of throwing an electric switch,” the momentary mechanical act that spread a season of joy across the land. Mayors too joined in, sometimes deputizing their children for the occasion. In countless towns and cities, switching on the lights was the primary way to celebrate the ability to switch on the lights following the installation of municipal lighting systems. And as noted, even popes were drawn to the tiny drama of button pressing as a way to demonstrate jurisdiction and to evoke the role of light as a metaphor of divine creation. Pope Pius XI, noting that the Church’s earthly mission would materially benefit from electric light, switched on the dynamos that would illuminate the Vatican in 1931. 36
Early in the 20th century, industry journals, along with many popular sources, often reported on button-pressing local luminaries. In many cases they appreciated the reflexivity of the gesture. The pageantry of switching-on ceremonies and the radiant lighting up of once dim streets demonstrated that “electric service is regarded as something more than a mere commodity,” especially “by those who have thus far been forced to get along without it,” ran one commentary in 1922. This was followed by numerous equally effusive reports: a dream come true in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania; a button pressed in Rockland, Maine, followed by a parade with a prancing charger horse, a man in a pumpkin-head costume, and the local Elks playing brass horns; Roscoe (now Sun Valley), Los Angeles, “celebrating under the incandescents,” with a festival of “dance and appropriate exercises”; and more dancing in the streets, country music, and “jazz clamor” in Montebello, California, where men were invited to “Come on over, and bring the girl along” to see the lights go on. 37
As the power behind two ambitious electrification initiatives — the Rural Electrification Administration and Boulder Dam — Franklin Roosevelt was an enthusiastic switch flipper, often turning up to launch new systems. The performance usually involved a fake switch set up on a podium. The actual switch would be some distance away with the operator listening by radio and cued to a key point in Roosevelt’s speech. At least once, in a contentious speech endorsing the opponent of a senator of his own party, the president, impassioned, went off-script, forgetting to signal the operator and leaving the lamps unlit until some minutes after the speech ended. 38
The most powerful button Roosevelt pressed was the one that sparked the turbines of Hoover Dam into action.
The most powerful button Roosevelt pressed was the one that sparked the turbines of Boulder Dam into action, in 1936. The dam (renamed Hoover Dam in 1947) was crucial for Roosevelt because it was expected to fulfill his promise to lower the cost of electricity. More available power would spur higher demand, which would lead to more power — a virtuous circle of economic growth. Boulder Dam, on the Colorado River near Las Vegas, was one of many built in that era, but it would produce the greatest amount of energy ever generated, at the highest voltages ever achieved, and it would transmit the power farther from its source than had any previous dam — to Los Angeles, nearly 300 miles away. For his part, Roosevelt was in Washington, D.C., some 2,400 miles distant, when he pressed the button.
The event, timed to coincide with the Third World Power Conference and the Second Congress on Large Dams, was attended by thousands, including 700 delegates from more than 50 countries. With radio microphones around him, Roosevelt spoke of the boon to mankind that followed electrification. At the end of his speech he raised his finger over a gold-plated button, intoning:
At this moment the powerful turbines are awaiting the relatively tiny impulse of an electric current which will flow from the touch of my hand on the button which you see beside me on the desk, to stir machinery into life, to stir it into creative activity to generate power.
He pressed down and continued, shifting into a second-person incantation: “Boulder Dam! In the name of the people of the United States, to whom you are a symbol of greater things in the future; in the honored presence of guests from many nations, I call you to life!” After a short pause, the turbines began to turn. 39
As a national grid began to take shape in the 1920s and ’30s, electricity was seen by many as a binding force. It was possible then to imagine national cohesion as at least partly an effect of electricity. Certainly Rural Electrification suggested as much, with its goal of uniting country and city through the modern amenity of electrical power, regardless of geography. Rural Americans could talk with urban Americans on the telephone despite the distance and could enjoy the same conveniences, at the press of a button. The switch proffered a vision of a modern material civilization knit together by devices designed to seamlessly serve human needs. Like radio, which fostered a common national conversation, the switch suggested a unitary space, in which presidents could start engines across the country. 40 By widening the franchise of material well-being from one coast to the other, the switch performed progress.
The Magic of the Button
Where has the world seen such magic before? A man in a power house turns a switch and a home many miles away is lighted. The turn of another switch — and the streets of a whole city with millions of inhabitants burst into radiance. The turn of still another switch sends a flood of light under the earth into the tunnels of a city where trains roar under the same power of electricity. Again, the turn of a switch lights up hundreds of miles of country roads. As late as the Eighteenth Century any man who had declared that such a thing might be might have been prosecuted as a madman or as a practitioner to the “black art.”
— Francis Trevelyan Miller, 1915 41
Among the greatest gifts that electricity has bestowed on domestic life, is the incandescent electric light.
— A. E. Kennelly, 1890 42
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pressing the button was routinely presented, if not experienced, as a kind of magic. By the slightest of gestures a grand intention was realized, immediately and heedless of distance. 43 By extension, the space generated by the switch shared these properties; its appearance brought with it a penumbra of magical traits. Like all magic tricks, however, electric light depended on careful preparation. In 1902 in San Francisco, for example, workers had been at their jobs for weeks installing street lighting in anticipation of the Knights of Pythias convention. But, one report went, no one noticed them or the web of wires they wove overhead until opening day: “What they had accomplished was scarcely apparent until tonight, when by the touch of a button the city, still in a transition stage of architectural progress, was transformed into a veritable fairyland.” Only at that moment of metamorphosis did residents take note.
As the report continued, the “effect of tens of thousands of artistically arranged incandescent globes … springing suddenly into light, was marvelous. It was a realization of an Arabian Night’s dream, or rather of the possibilities of twentieth century science.” 44 Time, effort, funding — science itself — were subsumed in a florescent instant as the button eclipsed labor with light, and rendered work as wonder. Even breathless accounts of President Cleveland’s button pressing in Chicago were at pains to point out that despite the instantaneity of the event, the fair was the work of 15,000 men over three years at a cost of $33 million. 45 Yet the ultimate outcome registered, at least rhetorically, as a modern magic; sometimes the switch was dubbed the “magic button.”
Thus did the switch accentuate the commodious benefit of a public works project over the role of the workforce and supporting technologies. In this sense, the switch typifies the “device paradigm,” an idea introduced in 1984 by the philosopher of modern technology, Albert Borgmann. The phrase describes a common trait of modern technology: the way in which a particular configuration of components enables a productive mechanism to be eclipsed by the commodity it delivers. Borgmann saw social relations in modern society as structured by the pairing of productive apparatus and a delivered commodity in such a way that consumption appears to be unmediated. Pipes and ducts, for example, separate the combustion of fuel from the resultant heat: they convey warmth while concealing the means of making it. 46 Though common to many tools, and facilitated by modern technologies, this cultural preference was neither inevitable nor neutral in its effects. Indeed, Borgmann argued that dissociation from productive mechanisms made us ignorant of their social and material costs. As long as benefits were assured and costs predictable, consumers remained strangers to their own environments. The invisibility of the technology was proof of its effectiveness. 47
Vast amounts of labor, incalculable stores of energy, and sprawling networks could be switched into service at a moment’s notice.
At first glance, the switch seems to contradict the device paradigm since it refocused attention on the mechanisms of the delivery system. But in experiential terms, the switch exemplified the ease with which vast amounts of labor, incalculable stores of energy, and sprawling networks could be snapped into service at a moment’s notice. The switch not only controlled the flow of electricity, it represented that control. Its trifling size and trivial operation encouraged confidence in the ability to bring to heel a force of nature. Additional details — an ivory or gold-plated key, common adornments for ceremonial switching, even an ordinary decorative switch plate — moved the switch further from technical functionality and into the realm of cultural signification. If anything, the switch’s instantaneous operation and distant action dramatized the device paradigm, at least for those earlier generations that marveled at the spread of electricity. With its disproportion between physical effort and visual impact, the light switch is the device paradigm made emphatic. 48
As electrical service spread in the late 19th century, switches proliferated. Soon even private homes were stippled with them. Writers in the 1890s evoked “an age of buttons” wherein formerly cumbersome labors became effortless. “We are nowadays getting to do things easier and further off than we used to,” a newspaper editorial suggested. “There is a button under every finger.” 49 And if buttons in homes hardly compared to those pressed in public, they nonetheless evoked some of that drama. Not only did this ease electricity’s entry into the home; it also produced a new sense of self in relation to domestic space, as the button-pressing power of the politician’s fingertip was dispersed to countless citizens.
A single light touch connected a modest house with the cataracts and coal mines, turbines and dynamos, relays and wires that powered the modern world.
Here, on the surface of a small plate mounted on a wall, the mobility of electricity — the physical trait that distinguished it from prior forms of energy — was held in suspension, awaiting command, ready, almost eager, to consume itself in turning a motor or lighting a room. A single light touch immediately connected a modest room in a modest house with the cataracts and coal mines, turbines and dynamos, relays and wires that increasingly powered America from the early 20th century on. As a historian of technology put it, electrical energy’s “chief significance has been to place power, great or small, in the workman’s hands or at his elbow,” a claim that could easily be reformulated to include the hands and elbows of homemakers. 50 The switch became a crucial interface between ordinary people and an all but invisible infrastructure, between potent natural forces harnessed by new technologies and the day-to-day doings of everyone. It was the banal object wherein the juggernaut of modernity became the stuff of everyday life.
The space of the switch was most immediate and vivid with electric light, but it also extended to other uses. When household chores were accomplished by pressing a button, the utility of one’s time became more apparent. Activities that once required much time and labor were newly seen as requiring little more than pressing several buttons, a mere instant of attention.
As houses were outfitted with switches, speculation arose regarding the possibility of a button-festooned home, with gates, lights, shoe-cleaning doormats, heated dining tables, serving trolleys, entertainment centers and more, all operated by a touch. In numerous accounts, the home became a place where “the pressing of buttons starts unseen hands to working. By very strange and rapid processes, food is prepared, cooked, served, whisked away and all traces of it removed.” 51 Other services, such as decorating advice or private counseling, could summon a new profession of “social prompters,” whose assistance could be switch-activated. 52 In promising instantaneous gratification, the switch seemed a harbinger of progress. A 1907 report on an exhibition in Paris cited an authority who surmised that the modernity of modern architecture consisted largely of the clever use of electricity and the unprecedented convenience of exercising one’s will at the touch of a button. 53
The push-button “house electrical” was so common a trope that it was soon ripe for parody. Certainly the funniest parody remains Buster Keaton’s 1922 The Electric House. In the film, Keaton, who’s been taking classes in hair dressing, is accidentally awarded a diploma in electrical engineering. He is immediately hired to electrify a home. While the patron is away, Keaton installs a number of clever devices, including moving stairs, an electric dishwasher, a trolley that serves meals, a bathtub that glides over to a bed, a mechanical hand that reshelves books, and several conveniences for the billiard room. The patron returns home and is duly impressed with his new amenities. But at the same time, the diploma’s rightful owner unravels the mystery and sneaks into the house to sabotage Keaton’s work. Soon all the switches are operating the wrong equipment at the wrong time, to riotous effect. Finally Keaton, in despair, ties a rock around his neck and throws himself into the pool and sinks to the bottom, only to see all the water drain out as the lever that automatically fills the pool is switched — manually — by the patron’s daughter to empty it, then switched again by the patron to complete the suicide, and then switched yet again to rescue Keaton, who in the meantime has fallen through the drain and finds himself at the end of an outfall pipe, rejected at the film’s end by the urban infrastructure he had pretended to master. 54
Women and Switches
She has been accustomed to turn a switch, lighting the lamp immediately. She presses a button and a bell rings instantly.
— Alice Carroll, 1923 55
Women were usually the ones pressing buttons, pulling cords, or flipping switches in the home, often motivated by the promise of fewer household chores. To many observers it seemed inevitable that “housework of the future will be carried on by the turn of a switch.” 56 Dr. Lucy Hall-Brown, a physician active in research on electrotherapeutics, told an 1894 meeting of the Brooklyn Woman’s Club that push-button housework “was a new form of the doctrine of the emancipation of woman,” a prospect the group greeted enthusiastically. Without electricity one found “poor Bridget, hot and tired … tugging a heavy pail of coal up a stair.” One day a workman wired the house, and
Presto! Change! Bridget and the house have become things of beauty and joys forever. … Bridget’s temper and the kitchen have cooled together. She comes down stairs in the morning, touches a button, and the coffee is steaming hot; another button, and the eggs are beaten, and still another, and the meat is chopped. 57
This sort of optimistic assessment made clear the extent to which a growing consumer society not only required new commercial products but also naturalized a set of social relations with these products, lubricated by routine and intimate encounters with electrical technologies. Not only were Bridget’s domestic chores satisfied by the touch of a button, her emotional temperature was assumed to run along the same circuit as the kitchen’s air — both controlled by the same button. 58
In addition to pressing buttons, women — female servants in particular — might also be replaced by them. Switches were a new option for bachelors unable to afford a housekeeper or whose current housekeeper, having stayed out late the evening before, was unable to do her daily duties. A 1908 account of “the magnificent victory of mechanism over maid” featured one such man, a Mr. McMurtry, who had his city home electrified and was able to get on without a servant, enjoying comfort and convenience by electrical means: air warmed, bath drawn, breakfast ready, all “accomplished each morning merely by your pressing a button.” The switch was the emblem of his time, McMurtry mused: “It is the age of the push button.” All that was left for human labor, it seemed, was reproduction: “But there is no button we can press to make the living,” he concluded on an inexplicably disappointed note. 59
Sometimes women were portrayed as being confused by switches. An 1895 story described Frank, an electrician, who installed numerous circuits in his home for as many uses as he could think of. He carefully numbered them so that Mary, his wife, would know which switch performed which function. But she could never keep them straight. After pressing a button to lullaby her baby to sleep, Mary tried to switch on her electric foot warmer. Suddenly the baby was squealing again, awakened by a noise from downstairs. “You got the wrong switch. That’s the burglar scare in the front hall,” Frank chided her. “Oh, dear, what a thing to marry an electrician,” Mary sighed, “I shall never remember all these switches.” 60 This broad caricature underscored that otherwise neutral technologies were often perceived in gendered terms.
The popular metaphor of electricity’s magic was used to reinforce long-standing prejudices about female technological incompetence.
The problem women allegedly faced was that the operation of switches was so effortless that they were lulled into an unthinking complacency. In a meeting of the Ohio Electric Light Association, a company agent recalled how his daughter told him that the light switches in their home had stopped working. After some inquiry, he learned that she and her mother had forgotten to switch off the iron once they had finished laundry chores. “I went there and looked at the switch, and exclaimed, ‘My dear girl, why didn’t you press the button?’ They had not pressed the button to turn off the current,” he reported, to the amusement of his male colleagues. The agent then expressed his bafflement at women’s failure to manage electrical tools. 61 Thus was the popular metaphor of electricity’s magic — an agreeable ignorance of its workings — employed to reinforce long-standing prejudices about female technological incompetence. 62
In fact utility representatives speculated that women’s weak grasp of electricity was hindering the growth of the industry. Women understood gas lighting, some said, because they engaged with it more closely, trimming wicks, cleaning chimneys, kindling burners, adjusting valves; and, of course, they could see the flame. No mystery there. But with electricity “they but turn on a switch and heat comes from an unseen and unknown somewhere. They mistrust it.” Although women relied more and more on electrical controls, the “ease and celerity” of operating switches, according to the usually male authors, fostered a sense of estrangement from their own homes and a degree of apprehension about this new power source. 63 Industry professionals, who were overwhelmingly male, saw women as both a weak link in sales and a target demographic for corporate growth. 64
At the same time, some argued that the new “push-button habit” was leading women to want so many chores done with greater ease that the burgeoning equipment industry was falling short of skyrocketing consumer expectations. 65 In response, the National Electric Light Association, a consortium of trade interests, established a public relations group, the Women’s Public Information Committee. Women were already playing an active role in purchasing decisions, and retail shops had refashioned themselves to appeal to female customers. NELA saw that trained home economists, most of whom were women, could become emissaries of electricity and further a female clientele. 66
Noting that women were the ones to complain about billing increases or service interruptions, the committee advised utility companies on better ways to communicate with female customers and how to explain the complexity and safety measures of electrical service, which would in turn justify higher prices. The companies decided to educate women about “what lies behind the button.” As Miss Bursiel, “chairman” of the committee, put it: “Many of your women customers don’t even know where your power plant is located and whether it is an ice plant or an electric power plant. About all they know is that they press a button and the light comes on.” But if women would learn the history of inventions that underpinned the industry, the time and investment that went into building power plants, and the whole infrastructure of electrical generation and distribution, Bursiel continued, then they would agree to pay more for their electric lights. 67 To aid this effort, NELA commissioned a promotional film calle Back of the Button, featuring “Mr. Kilo Watt,” that explained in layperson’s terms the production and distribution of electrical power.
The Technological Mundane
The properly citified citizen has become a broker dealing, chiefly, in human frailties or the ideas and inventions of others: a puller of levers, a presser of the buttons of a vicarious power, his by way of machine craft. A parasite of the spirit is here, a whirling dervish in a whirling vortex.
— Frank Lloyd Wright, 1932 68
To focus on the switch is to highlight a novel but increasingly important way in which men and women relate to their immediate environment, one that goes well beyond the idea that architecture simply contains or accommodates functions. People perform within space — carrying out social roles and satisfying functions — but increasingly in the 20th century they interacted with space, with the technological systems modernity was interweaving into their surroundings. And most interactions are necessarily accomplished by controlling flows, whether of energy, temperature, water, information, other people. After doors and windows, the light switch represents a major step forward along the path to fully interactive environments. The switch allowed space — visual space, at least — to be as readily mustered as any other commercial good. In making any space more amenable to more purposes and for extended hours, the switch also helped make spaces less distinct or particular. A well-lit workspace no longer needed to cleave to the windowed edge of a building. Easily accessed electric light made space more fungible. Along with the lighting apparatus it was part of, the switch was an engine of spatial commodification.
After doors and windows, the light switch represents a major step forward along the path to fully interactive environments.
As the electrically illuminated room gained functional autonomy from natural cycles of night and day, it became a reservoir of perceptual availability, in the sense described by Martin Heidegger, (which also helped inspire Borgmann’s concept of the device paradigm). Heidegger asserted that the technological transformation of a naturally occurring object or process created a “standing reserve” or supply of potentiality — trees conceived as timber, for example. In turn, these man-made conditions become a second nature and for all intents and purposes appear to have always been so. 69 Their artificial character is obscured by conceptual convention and routine practice; and the world, in turn, comes to be understood as an array of resources to fulfill human needs. To the extent that the switch transfigured a room technologically and at the same time masked that change, it helped bring about a new, modern space characterized by responsiveness to an individual’s will to see.
Rather than possessing fixed formal traits, the modern space of the switch was shaped by a distinct amalgam of ignorance and agency. In keeping with the device paradigm, the switch introduced a gap between the unprecedented convenience of easily controlling anything — from a lamp in one’s home to acres of fairgrounds — and an understanding of the means for doing so. Massive machines and marvelous effects were willed into action without the operator’s having the least idea of how these things were accomplished. The proliferation of electrical devices created an environment surfaced with switches and controls behind which loomed a realm of invisible machines. Confidence regarding the switch’s operation allowed individuals to accept the infiltration of technological systems into the built environment and agree to the asymmetry between operating them and understanding them. The switch made unknowing routine.
Yet the switch also imparted a feeling of agency to its users. It brought the workings of an otherwise hidden infrastructure pulsing with mysterious and potentially deadly energy back into the jurisdiction of human volition, making fingers a crucial element of electric light’s symbolic system. It installed a human figure into what the writer and historian Henry Adams described as the icon of the era, the electrical dynamo, which he first saw at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Although man-made, it seemed to Adams “a symbol of infinity,” comparable to the divine power of the Virgin Mary. Adams focused on the dynamo as an “occult mechanism,” a means of producing a force incommensurate with other forms of energy and taxing the mind’s ability to comprehend it.
Adams likened the electrical dynamo to faith: both operated by absolute fiat rather than reasoned dialogue, which in either case led to “a sort of Paradise of ignorance” regarding the actual means by which an action was executed. Humankind had entered “a new universe which had no common scale of measurement with the old,” Adams wrote. Had he even considered it, Adams might well have dismissed the switch as a trivial element. However, in the eyes of the public, fixed as they were on politicians on podiums pointing fingers, the switch was precisely the hinge between an occult mechanism and a handy convenience. It returned a sense of scale to the divine infinity that Adams described, a place for humans to reassert their will in a technological universe otherwise indifferent to their existence. 70
The space of the switch was also marked by its instantaneity. In his 1994 study of depictions of flashes of emotional intensity, the German literary scholar Karl Heinz Bohrer discerned two types of moments that happen in fractions of a second. One was an epiphany, a sudden and significant insight. The epiphany stood outside historical narrative and gestured toward some eternal verity or transcendent truth; it was a feature of German idealism. The other moment he termed a “sudden instant,” which arose with early 20th-century writers such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Marcel Proust. This modernist “moment without duration” insinuated nothing ideal and was either indifferent to or ignorant of metaphysics; its value was “the happiness of perception itself,” the sheer pleasure of an uninstrumentalized fascination. 71
As a materialized form of suddenness, the light switch can be seen as akin to such literary instants. On the one hand, it was a sensory pleasure, like the “sudden instant” of modernist art: the instantaneous transition from dark to light was precisely what attracted crowds to button-pressing ceremonies. On the other hand, the shift between the visual states of dark and light evoked a historical narrative of progress. It was thus like the “eternal instant”; it helped construct the idea of progress as inevitable and the modern condition itself as transcendent. And more, as it became ubiquitous, the light switch installed an experience of suddenness within the realm of the everyday. It gave a visual correlate of the epiphany — seeing the light — a material foundation. Turning on the lights every day, as desired, was the primary way to make such uniquely modern feelings seem familiar and, eventually, natural.
As the novelty wore off, light switches became banal and the enchantment of instantaneous visual transformation became routine.
As the novelty wore off, the switch’s annihilation of space — instantly and at a distance — quickly became unthinking habit. Light switches became banal and the enchantment of visual transformation became routine. Thus the “technological sublime” — the pleasing stupefaction felt when one is faced with vast industrial plants or enormous turbines, unprecedented speeds, immense machines, titanic structures — gives way to what we might call the “technological mundane.” 72 The technological mundane is the residue of the technological sublime, something that was a wonder to earlier generations or even to oneself in an initial encounter but that comes to be commonplace. It signifies not a mere banality but the contraction of awe into amusement. The comic misadventures described earlier were evidence of the switch’s diminishing significance. Even the golden keys and hoary pronouncements appear to be strained efforts to compensate for a condition that was already getting stale. We might say the switch miniaturized the sublime. With its nonchalant operation, its small size, its housebound scope, and even its dollop of agency, the switch returned the sublime as a tiny, replicable spectacle. Even today, and despite the switch’s complete naturalization, the expression “at the flip of a switch” retains a trace of excitement at the possibility of instantaneous transfiguration.
The technological mundane may be prosaic but it is far from inert. Its ordinariness is central to its cultural power. No further proof is required than the sense of powerlessness, sometimes panic, we experience when we need to light a room but cannot find the switch. The transition from dark to light becomes unbridgeable, and the feeling can be disquieting. In describing situations that give rise to unsettling experiences, Sigmund Freud mentions the case of moving through a darkened room, searching for the switch. Repeatedly, almost obsessively, one retraces the same fruitless route, analogous to returning again and again to the same spot along a misty mountain path or circling round and round the same streets while lost in a strange city, all experiences leading to “the same feeling of helplessness and of uncanniness.” 73
The uncanny feeling Freud describes arises because something familiar has been displaced with something alien. The historical formation of the switch as an ordinary aspect of everyday life induced a sense of familiarity with the benefits of new electrical technologies and confidence in their reliability. When the switch is missing, space itself can feel unwelcoming. When the switch is there, it makes all the difference.