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Long before the clapper, push-buttons ruled the hallway.
August 8, 2010 9:26 PM   Subscribe

Why did push-button light switches go out of fashion?

Sometime mid-century, push-button light switches fell out of favor in the US, in favor of the common toggle switch we're all familiar with.

I'm hard-pressed to think of the disadvantages of the push-button over the toggle, and wonder if there was a clear reason that the toggle came to be favored.
posted by eschatfische to Home & Garden (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
my sister has these in her mid-century ranch house (the previous owner had gutted the period pink bath tile, but mysteriously kept the antiquated light switches and furnace). One night when I was visiting, I pushed the button to turn the lights on in the guest bedroom, and it got stuck in the pressed position. I had to sleep with the light on for two nights until the button decided to come unstuck. I suspect that that happened enough to other people that the toggle came to be favored.
posted by Sara Anne at 9:39 PM on August 8, 2010


Indeed. I had these in a house I used to live in. They had probably been installed about thirty years previous and it was quite common for them to get stuck in one position or another. More than once, we resorted to unscrewing lightbulbs with a towel around our hands.

For all that they are aesthetically inferior, the modern toggles are a better system.
posted by 256 at 9:47 PM on August 8, 2010


They just weren't designed that well. It took some force to push the button. When the toggle switch came along, users found it easier to use, and it became the standard.
posted by exphysicist345 at 10:27 PM on August 8, 2010


We have them in our apartment. I'm not sure if it's a quirk of ours alone, or a general design flaw, but pressing the button doesn't always work. About 30% of the time, a light press or a glancing one won't actually cause the switch to flip. It's an annoying flaw and I hate them.
posted by felix betachat at 10:41 PM on August 8, 2010


The normal modern switch can be changed by wiping your hand (or some other body part) over it. It's fast and easy. The push button is slower and requires more attention, and you can't do it with your elbow.

And, as others have mentioned, it's more reliable.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:46 PM on August 8, 2010


Doesn't answer the question, but you might be interested in Ben Katchor reading "The Faulty Switch".
posted by at the crossroads at 10:48 PM on August 8, 2010


In addition to the above, I wonder if toggle switches are easier to turn on in the dark. I usually just flap my hand in the general location of the light switch when it's too dark to see, and the light eventually turns on. I don't know what the equivalent for a button would be; probably feeling for the button then pressing it, which requires a bit more precision.
posted by lore at 10:49 PM on August 8, 2010


They also seem louder to me.
posted by slidell at 11:10 PM on August 8, 2010


slidell: "They also seem louder to me."

Have you heard the older toggles? I still have some in my house that was built in 1967. They make a horribly loud snap. If I wasn't so broke, I'd replace them all with the modern, quiet ones (except those tend to come from China, and the originals were made in the USA and work just fine.)
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 12:27 AM on August 9, 2010


I favor the push-button myself, and have replaced most of the toggles in my house with these. In almost 10 years, I've yet to have one stick in the on or off position, so perhaps these modern reproductions have licked that problem.
posted by mumkin at 2:13 AM on August 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


The thing is that modern toggles are way more useful in the dark, which is where you'll be using a toggle switch approximately half of the time. The design is fundamentally better, because if you don't have perfect muscle memory (or it's the first time you've tried to use the switch) you'll instinctually wave your hand gently over the wall as you use feeling to discover the switch. But a push button switch has to be found and actuated to confirm you've discovered it. That means occasionally you'll be pushing things that aren't buttons, or you'll have to take additional time to feel it out: "Is it round, is it hard? No? Ah, that's the electrical socket. Keep sweeping…" Whereas with a flip switch, the very motion of discovery also triggers it (well, most of the time, if you sweep "up").

I've seen some designs sorta-kinda get around the problem by installing a back-light to the switch itself (which gives you an extra discovery sense). Personally, I find it it needlessly overcomplicates the design by requiring additional pieces that eventually wear out (like light bulbs). Plus it just feels dumb; like, SUP DAWG WE HEARD YOU LIKE LIGHT BULBS, SO WE PUT LIGHT BULBS IN YO LIGHT BULB SWITCH SO YOU CAN SEE SWITCH WHILE YOU SWITCH.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:07 AM on August 9, 2010 [6 favorites]


Switches are easier for people who have mobility issues with fingers or arms, or who may not have the hand/eye coordination necessary to push a button. I doubt that accessibility was the reason for the mid-century switchover, but maybe it was in the back of some electrical designer's mind.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:08 AM on August 9, 2010


The thing is that modern toggles are way more useful in the dark, which is where you'll be using a toggle switch approximately half of the time.

In a way, this is even more true of the more-modern rocker/"Decora" switches. Slapping the light switch (provided you can aim towards its general vicinity in the dark) is really all it takes to turn the lights on.
posted by thisjax at 5:55 AM on August 9, 2010


InsertNiftyNameHere writes "Have you heard the older toggles? I still have some in my house that was built in 1967. They make a horribly loud snap. If I wasn't so broke, I'd replace them all with the modern, quiet ones"

Good switches still snap; or at least the nearly $4 a piece commercial grade switches I just installed in my shop do. It's good electrical design; one wants the contacts to open and close as quickly and firmly as possible.
posted by Mitheral at 7:18 AM on August 9, 2010


So far nobody has mentioned the fact that with toggle switches, you can tell what position the switch is in. I just moved into a house which is nearly all push buttons, and it's impossible to tell whether the switches are on or off.
posted by lostburner at 9:06 AM on August 9, 2010


I have no clue: do push buttons work with 3-way/4-way circuits? (for instance, a light switch at the top/bottom of a run of stairs, controlling the same fixture)
posted by misterbrandt at 10:57 AM on August 9, 2010


I just moved into a house which is nearly all push buttons, and it's impossible to tell whether the switches are on or off.

Growing up in a house with push buttons, I remember top pushed in is on, bottom pushed in is off. Do yours work differently? Or am I misremembering?
posted by Gucky at 11:07 AM on August 9, 2010


you can tell what position the switch is in

You can wire a toggle backwards just as easily as you can wire a push-button backwards. Plus, any time you've got two switches controlling one light, you're going to get a "reversed" switch, doesn't matter what the type. It's simple binary arithmetic.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:41 PM on August 9, 2010


You can wire a toggle backwards just as easily as you can wire a push-button backwards

Not exactly - the wiring will not change how the switch works, but they can be installed upside down.
posted by davey_darling at 9:38 PM on August 9, 2010


I have no clue: do push buttons work with 3-way/4-way circuits? (for instance, a light switch at the top/bottom of a run of stairs, controlling the same fixture)

Yes, they do -- well, some anyway. I have two pushbutton switches in my house, one at the top and one at the bottom of the stairs.
posted by harkin banks at 10:34 PM on August 9, 2010


Growing up in a house with push buttons, I remember top pushed in is on, bottom pushed in is off. Do yours work differently? Or am I misremembering?

In the push-button switches in this house, the on position looks and feels exactly like the off position. I suppose push-button switches could be made to show their state, which is what everyone else seems to be assuming. It hadn't occurred to me.
posted by lostburner at 11:41 PM on August 9, 2010


Most people here are probably talking about this style of pushbutton switch. State of the switch in these cases is determined by which button is pushed in.
posted by Mitheral at 7:04 AM on August 10, 2010


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