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  15. At the Flip of a Switch
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At the Flip of a Switch

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.

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.

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 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.

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. 1

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.

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. 1