Updated: Jun 4, 2019
There are more than a few things that we take for granted. For me, I know one of the things I take for granted is the light switch. Growing up in a middle-class neighborhood, almost all of the rooms in my house had overhead lighting. I could just flip a switch and turn on the light. I was always mildly curious about how things work, but with an electrician grandfather, I grew up with a healthy dose of fear towards electricity in general. I didn’t question how my lights turned on. I did, however question the technology of it all. What was the history of the light switch, and how, in this day and age, how have we improved on past invention? Where can we continue to improve on technologies to make light safer, easier, and better for our world?
To answer these questions, one has to research the history of the light switch.
Essentially, to flip a switch on closes the electrical circuit, and electricity flows through the wires to the bulb, making it light up. When you flip the light off, you are braking the current. Seems pretty “4th-grade science fair,” right? Right.
The most common form of the light switch is actually called a “toggle switch,” patented in 1917. Before this, the common way of turning lights in homes on or off was a push-button switch that became popular in the early 1880s.
Push button switches were relatively similar to flip switches, in that the top button meant “on” and pressing the bottom button turned off the light. Several push-button switches are still available for purchase and installation today, giving a historically accurate alternative for the homeowner who needs or prefers one. For the most part, however, the flip switch is still the method for turning on or off lights that comes most readily to mind, as the invention was already widely known and used before everyone on earth was alive.
The only other advancement in the technology of light switches came in the 1980s, with the addition of the rocker switch. We know the rocker switch as a flat, rectangular panel that can “rock” either up or down to turn the light on or off.
Now, both the rocker and flip switch are the two most common ways to turn house lights on or off. Finally, someone sat down and asked, “what if I didn’t have to ever touch the switch to turn my lights on or off? What if I could program my lights to not just be on a timer, but put that timer on an app, and then add new features to the technology to make it easier for everyone?”
Here is where “smart homes” or automation comes in. Now, we can program our lights from an app on our cells to turn on when we want. We can put our lights on a timer, or easily program our lights to turn on when we get within a certain radius of our house. We can tell our lights to dim, just by speaking out loud.
But where is this all going? To be honest, with the affordability and convenience of “smart” light switches, it is very probable that this new technology will become as standard as flip or rocker switches. The convenience of a “smart” light switch is not the only benefit. Having the ability to turn on or off your lights from afar gives peace of mind, and can allow you to save on electrical “waste,” giving back to your wallet and the earth. Many possibilities stem from this simple addition to common technology. How else could installing this convenience improve your life?