restricted access At the Interface: The Case of the Electric Push Button, 1880–1923

This article uses the case of electric push buttons to argue for more systematic scholarly attention to user interfaces as objects of historical study. Between 1880 and 1923, push buttons diffused rapidly as switches for controlling domestic devices ranging from bells to lights. In a first stage from approximately 1880 to 1915, historical actors employed strategies to make electricity intelligible to and safe for consumers: some advanced a view of buttons as technical mechanisms that laypersons should know how to construct and deconstruct; others propagated a vision of buttons as mediums for using electricity without thought or effort. In a second phase after 1915, when many individuals had come to take push-button interfaces for granted, the electrical industry endeavored to undo this reification by revealing technical processes behind buttons. The article investigates how varying pedagogical models factored into social, cultural and political negotiations around electricity, consumption and everyday practices.