push button

The Awesome Evolution Of The Push Button, From Flash To Dash

Photo courtesy of Abraham Arthemius via Flickr

From the flashlight to Amazon’s “Dash” button delivery, push buttons have defined and redefined how we interact with the world.

Every day, we push hundreds if not thousands of buttons. From the snooze button to the start button, to the pause button and the car-lock button, to every single key on a computer, many people go through their days without ever realizing just how essential they are.

Not only are push buttons central; they are changing all of the time. Many of the buttons we use today aren’t buttons at all in the traditional, physical sense — rather, they are embedded into the surfaces of touchable screens. And even as some physical buttons fade, innovations are abound.

The rise of buttons

Before electronic buttons, there were various tools that triggered action upon the touch of a finger. Guns unleashed fatal bullets, and pianos augmented melodious tunes —  these are mechanical actions that proceed the tech button, which is different in that the action that follows the push is less intuitive.

As GE’s slideshare (presented at SXSW in 2010) explains, the button changed how we comprehend the world, because the cause and effect is abstract (pushing a button doesn’t really equate much with light or other actions in any natural sense). It is this abstraction that defines buttons of the electronic age.

Buttons as technological triggers

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The flashlight was the first, simple everyday electronic button. Then came Kodak cameras, doorbells, light switches, and the radio in the early 1900s, followed by push button telephones. Cash registers, calculators, and push button home appliances like laundry machines and dishwashers weren’t far behind.

By 1956, the first remote-control push buttons had been invented in the form of the TV remote. Cars became button-equipped, equating the notion of push button with luxury, ease, and convenience.

But buttons also came to represent something more sinister following WWII, when it became apparent that global annihilation was more or less a button push away, capable of detonating a nuclear weapon.

Similar ideas about buttons as indicative of control and fear exist today over the concept of an Internet kill-switch button.

Buttons go virtual

By the mid to late 1900s, push buttons had became what we think of them today — or perhaps, what we are too at ease with to think of much at all. Buttons are now used for gaming, driving, cleaning, communicating, alerting authorities — you name it.

But buttons have also become in some ways metaphorical. When a computer screen shows a button, for example, it’s not a physical, actionable device, but a virtual representation of one. The shift was not a seamless one: in the 1980s, Apple had to introduce the “point and click” concept of a mouse to users in a lengthy manual.

Now, along with physical buttons, we have virtual ones that can look like anything — be it a link, an image, or an icon on a screen.

A fade, or a resurgence?

Early computers required physical buttons to operate metaphorical ones, but today, it’s all at your fingertips. Push button phones are going out of style fast, tablets are usurping desktop PCs, and touch screens are used in cars, stores, and subway stations.

Call it nostalgia, branding, or the button’s timeless elegance, but the idea and even shape of buttons is still going strong, in spite or perhaps because of a virtual shift:

  • MayDay: The Kindle Fire’s virtual “MayDay” button connects you right with an Amazon tech advisor, 24 hours a day.
  • Amazon’s “Dash:” a physical button that orders you whatever you need with a simple push; to many’s surprise, it’s real and not an April Fools joke
  • Reddit’s Button: Unlike Amazon, this was an actual April Fools stunt that used a mysterious button to launch a social experiment, proving the timeless power and appeal of button pushing
  • Push for Pizza: A virtual button that orders pizza to your house ASAP, an app aptly developed by teens
  • DO button: You can customize virtual buttons to control your home, your appliances, and anything else from your phone
  • Bttn: … and now, you can get a physical button to trigger any of your virtual ones
  • Droplet: A tiny bluetooth button you can stick anywhere, which you can push to track any activity that you need a reminder for

What’s next?

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Push on, button-pushers, because buttons will probably never go out of style completely.

Even so, as Michael Galpert writes on Medium, the only thing better than pushing a button is not pushing a button. So the next step may be touch-free action — technologies like voice control, gesture control, even thought or AI-controlled, some of which are already available or in development.

So next time you push a button (we’re guessing about 5 to 10 seconds from now), take a moment to appreciate the monolithic impact such a simple mechanism has had on the world as we know it.

Today’s buttons would have looked like magic a century ago. What will they look like in 100 years?

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Jennifer Markert