Endangered Species


Don’t let the confluence of the headline picked, juxtaposed against the background of the graphic chosen, mislead you into assuming this is a post reflecting on the diminishing popularity of religion or the shrinking cadre of pedophile priests. Those are not lamentable losses like the actual subject of today’s discourse.

Kissing Your Switches Goodbye

This post is an ode to my love of switches. They will never truly be gone as long as there are those of us dedicated to keeping their memories alive.

If fantasies of wild west shoot outs drove the desires of such notable Americans as Ralphie into an unquenchable lust for a Red Ryder BB gun, it was the lights, bells, buzzers and switches in the early electronics era that propelled many a young lad into a lifelong love of electronics (computers & space).

In my youth we watched the Buck Rogers Channel (/s) and pictured ourselves as the lab-coated technicians tinkering with a fascinating array of electro-mechanical devices, almost always in an attempt to solve the ultimate questions of existence or at a bare minimum, kill the monster. It was a job that could only be accomplished by a highly competent switch-turner or button-pusher. Many a poor laborers son were lured into the promises of a button pushing, back saving future and proceeded to follow an educational path consistent with that scenario. Well I can’t testify as to the veracity of “many”, but it was certainly true in my case, and statistics bear out the rush to math and science in the late fifties and early sixties, so it’s a safe assumption I wasn’t unique in regard to the opportunity presented.

Getting Acquainted With Switches

Some general rules on the hierarchy of switches: The best switches always light up when they are activated. Rocker switches are more high tech than simple lever (pictured above) switches. Big ass switches, like those used on industrial circuit breakers have their own special gravitas. Covered or protected switches like those used in self destruct scenarios are the undeniable Billy Badass of all switches. Highest honors go to those in the latter category which are also highlighted by some form of protection warning graphics, often in the format of yellow police crime scene tape.

Danger Will Robinson Danger

Cinematic Law of Computational Equivalency

The more confusing and crowded any randomly assembled melee of blinking lights, assorted switches and hypnotic panel graphics appears on camera, the more powerful the computer. Size matters. It was a precursor to Moore’s Law, only for cinematic computer purposes. Real computers of the day were actual behemoths, affording wide latitude to fertile imaginations Hollywood set designers. As you can see in the photo below (a 50’s look at what a home computer might look like) they were extremely complicated looking bits of steampunk. Is that a ships steering wheel in the lower left, or is there a ’57 Chevy missing it’s steering wheel out there somewhere? And why is that steering wheel looking thingamabob there in the first place? If I didn’t know any better I’d suspect this was a contemporary photo of the logistics control room of a Carnival Cruise liner.

A three hour tour

Switch History in the Twentieth Century

In the sixties era, back when Siri was just as much a fantasy as Roomba Rosie the talking robot maid on The Jetsons, switches ruled the day.

The lowly electric switch, born in the century of Edison’s light bulb, dominated the control circuit market in the century to follow. Reconstituted in many elaborate forms over the next half century, the magnetic control contact relays of the 1960’s Bell telephone system showcased the epitome of mechanical switch integration into our high tech lifestyles.

rotary dial

Even as the computer era continued to encroach upon us, the era of the switch looked keen to prosper into the next generation. A quick glance at the first home computer ever offered for sale, the Altair 8800, belies the fact that switches would soon be going the way of the dinosaurs.


It’s kind of hard to imagine what a big deal just having a keyboard was for people back in the late 1970’s. From the introduction of the Altair in 1975 to the introduction of keyboards was a short few years. It was a net wash for the fate of switches, with the confusing array of programming switches shown above merely shifted to a more convenient arrangement in the form of a QWERTY keyboard. Keyboards actually pumped a shot of adrenaline into the product life cycle of switches, but they’re now in rapid decline. Their ghosts still haunt the virtual QWERTY keyboard layout on your smart devices.


The Coming End for my little Friends

This ultimately brings me around to the leap of technology that is ultimately killing my beloved switches. The ubiquitous cheap ability to put an entire computer in the place a single mechanical switch and then use it for something inane like simple on/off touch control (soft switching).

I’m reasonably certain there will be at least a few switches that last long enough for my aging bony fingers to cling to, but I would bet that a baby born today won’t have any memory of switches by the time he/she gets old enough to scope out the most popular hair care products in his/her peer group.

The future youth of the world need only know one switch, and that isn’t even assured. Which one? The power switch. After that you’ll just be talking to your devices. Are you ready? For what it’s worth, Siri and Google Voice already have me enunciating like a sixth grade English student as I valiantly attempt to get my device to comprehend my southern infected Yankee dialect. The fact that it works more often than not already, has given me the confidence to broadcast this glimpse into the immediate future as a near certainty and not just a rambling delusional vision of the sort offered by Harold Camping.