Are you into button porn?


Boy, do I have a page for you. Return to the late 20th century when the cutting edge of human interface design was buttons, lots of buttons, more buttons on everything, and modernity was all about slapping buttons on something.

I’m sorry, but I’m not into buttons at all. I once possessed a still — not that kind, the ones you used to make pure distilled water — and it may have been a thing of archaic beauty, with a gorgeous glass coil and a reservoir tank and multiple outlet valves, but it was entirely controlled by a bank of buttons. You had to initiate the process by firing up a boiler, and then you had to open up a set of valves in a specific order by pressing buttons in the correct sequence. In particular, there was a glowing red button that had to be pushed at the right time to start the process with a lot of hissing and bubbling, and you had to check regularly because if the boiler ran dry, it was bad. And if you pressed the buttons in the wrong order, you could, for instance, let the tubes get red hot before you flushed them with cooling water, and that would be very bad, because things could shatter and then you were out a few thousand dollars and your bench was going to get flooded with broken glass and boiling hot water and steam was going to spray out everywhere.

It looked very high tech, though, with a big gray sheet metal control panel studded with buttons and indicator lights. I kind of ruined it by taping sheets of paper with handwritten arrows and warnings in different sharpie colors all over it.

Buttons are kind of stupid, I decided. Give me smart control circuitry any day, especially with something as mechanically trivial as a still.

Anyway, the worst example of button porn at that link, I think, is this one.

Even in 1981, Byte was a dinosaur of a magazine, catering to that weird world of computer hobbyists who thought a good soldering iron was a practical tool for optimizing your gear (I know, I was one of them…but I got better). Did anyone stop to wonder where our future computer watch user was going to stow the microscope and tiny needle-like stylus they’d need to use that toy? Did they still think we’d do everything from the command line with little tiny spinning magnetized disks for storage?

I greatly appreciate that my phone has one button and gigabytes of solid state storage, and that I have access to more via a little USB port and wifi. I guess, though, that a thin black slab wouldn’t have been considered very magazine-cover sexy 40 years ago.

Comments

  1. bcw bcw says

    In one of the labs when I was a grad student in antiquity, there was a large bed push-button mounted in a set of cryostat electronics that did absolutely nothing, whose sole purpose was to distract a famous theorist known for wandering into labs and pushing buttons to see what they would do.

  2. hemidactylus says

    Aren’t phone apps virtual buttons? Sure they provide graphic interface into the Unix “everything is a file” underbelly of iOS and Android that I recall was critiqued by Jaron Lanier, but still…buttons are buttons. And I put mine into categorized folders.

    And that watch on the magazine cover
    failed to predict the Apple watch. Doesn’t it have app icons too (buttons)?

  3. PaulBC says

    I remember the “Future Computers” cover! I was such a nerd I subscribed to Byte magazine in high school. Good times. (Being a nerd, not high school in general.)

    Robert Tinney rules. BTW, it’s supposed to be funny. Even in those benighted times, we did comprehend that the buttons were too small. But the buttons on the little calculator watches were just big enough.

  4. PaulBC says

    Anyway, button porn or not, I was very happy to replace my MacBook Pro with one that has a real escape button. Trying to do escape on the touch bar was a mess (but I never bothered to remap the key; I am just not into idiosyncratic customization).

  5. PaulBC says

    stroppy@5 Buttons, meh. I’m partial to double throw knife switches. Remind me not to hire you to outfit my mad scientist laboratory.

  6. PaulBC says

    As a child I was also a big fan of the kind of radio button that inspired the… wait for it… radio button (and I wonder how many fancy schmancy UI designers don’t even know why they’re called that).

    Though I am more accustomed to seeing them on blenders, and I suppose they still put them on appliances now if they’re not all electronic-controlled, though there are other solutions. I’m still not sure of the mechanism that makes the one button pop out when another is pushed. I can kind of guess.

    Also I assume the inspiration for Three Stooges skits involving unsuccessful attempts to close all the dresser drawers.

    I’ll stop now… but yeah, buttons. Huh huh… buttons are cool… huh huh

  7. hemidactylus says

    Though I’m calling app icons “buttons” for their superficial resemblance, within apps themselves there are buttons (buttons within buttons?):

    https://developer.apple.com/design/human-interface-guidelines/ios/controls/buttons/

    At work I long ago automated some tedious Excel sequences into macros and made them launchable via simple buttons along the top thingy (whatever Microsoft calls that…Ribbon).

    Button excess was critiqued in Office Space as pieces of flair. And a shout out to properly dealing with an unruly all-in-one fax/copier in the manner deserved.

    Buttons are forever with us.

  8. stroppy says

    Using a keyboard to push your buttons.

    Now waiting for my brain implant controller so I never have to swipe again.

  9. Reginald Selkirk says

    Review of a new keyboard. In addition to the standard QWERTY layout, the editing keypad, the numeric keypad, the cursor keypad and the function keys, it adds an extra column of 6 keys on the left. I have no idea what they do, but they are shiny.

  10. wzrd1 says

    Frankly, that still even in the ’70’s would’ve gotten a sequencer, were it on my bench. Analog, digital, whatever is at hand now.

    Still, around 2007, I recall two techs meeting and failing.
    A 10 inch tablet computer/cell phone and a wristwatch cellphone that one needed Bluetooth earphones to use. So, one could bleed from the ears putting a boom box to one’s head or from the eyes trying to read callerid and find the answer button.
    Either way, I was totally over buttons after Ford’s WIN button.
    By 1980, I became a fan of the button with a toilet seat that prevented one from pushing the thing. By 1990, a steel enclosure with a padlock protecting it.
    Now, wanna push the doorbell button, you have to get past the laser wielding sharks and armed security androids.
    And for the occasions where I lock myself out, I just pick the lock…

  11. PaulBC says

    I think my all-time favorite kind of switch is the rotary hexadecimal switch like this one. I never had much of a chance to use them in my own projects, but I encountered them a little at a summer job. Though you can do the same with a dip switch, hex seems way cooler to me.

    I still want the double pole* knife switches and Tesla coils for my mad scientist lab. I’m a traditionalist that way. (I can’t find the link now, but I read somewhere that Frankenstein special effects artist Kenneth Strickfaden got his start with equipment he acquired originally from Tesla.)

    *Not double throw as I incorrectly stated in a previous comment. Mea culpa.

  12. says

    More evidence buttons are for the primitive – my cat Hecubus likes hopping up on the dehumidifier and pushing buttons until something happens. When it turns on the fan blows on him for a instant and he hops down. Enrichment, babey. I’m kind of impressed he knows what he’s doing – it isn’t just that he’s walking on them by accident, he presses them with his paw very intentionally. But what is going on in his little head?

  13. PaulBC says

    And is no one going to mention the itsy bitsy floppy? So cute!

    With reference to d3zd3z@18, floppies are also still occasionally put on screens to signify “save” though I think that practice is diminishing.

    I was going to point out that it’s the April issue as further evidence that it’s a gag. However, a brief look suggests that Tinney’s covers were serious or goofy at his discretion, not really on a timetable. Byte did have an April Fools article in those issues, and I definitely thought of the cover as part of the April Fools edition at the time.

  14. mailliw says

    @5 stroppy

    Steampunk needs more buttons.

    The Arithmeum in Bonn must be the ultimate Steampunk experience. The museum is based on the huge number of mechanical calculating machines collected by a mathematics professor at the university.

    You want buttons? Here are some buttons! https://www.arithmeum.uni-bonn.de/sammlungen/rechnen-einst/objekt.html?tx_arithinventory%5Bobject%5D=4597

    The computer collection is pretty cool too: https://www.arithmeum.uni-bonn.de/ausstellungen/fruehe-computer-und-pcs.html

  15. indianajones says

    One of my favorite analogies remains ‘more ignored than the 8 button on the microwave’

  16. Pierce R. Butler says

    As implied in that Byte cover, we can eventually expect a retrospective on “When Thumbnails Ruled the Earth”.

  17. Nemo says

    I really, really don’t think the Byte cover was meant to be a realistic depiction of future tech. It’s just shorthand — i.e., “the power of a desktop computer on your wrist”, or suchlike.

    Interestingly, the miniature floppy in the picture does look pretty close to the physical size of a micro SD card, although of course the card would have thousands of times the capacity of a 1981 floppy.

  18. avalus says

    I just love some good haptic, clicky buttons. Bonus points if they light up.

    Uh yeah.

    (I wish I kew how to solder electronics. I really would like to try making a special keyboard for KSP with some nice 70’s style NASA buttons.)

  19. christoph says

    @ Great American Satan, # 20: “But what is going on in his little head?”
    World domination, of course.

  20. PaulBC says

    mailliw@23 A friend of mine showed me through the Deutsches Museum in Munich. This was in early 1997 I think so I don’t know what the exhibits are like now. There was a gallery of steam engines and I thought oh my god, I have never seen so many steam engines in my life. These are way better than dinosaur bones. Then we moved to another gallery and it’s steam turbines! Eventually, we did make it to the calculating machines. Unfortunately this part was rushed and I didn’t get nearly as much time to look as I wanted.

    There are some great museums in the US. The Museum of Natural History in New York, the whole Smithsonian complex, the Exploratorium in SF for a hands on experience, but the sheer scale of the Deutsches Museum really astounded me. I’d love to go back there some time.

  21. PaulBC says

    Nemo@27 Yes. It’s a joke. I was 15 in April 1981 and I knew to chuckle when I saw it. I think there may even be an “about the cover” that explains that it’s a joke, but I’m not sure.

    We weren’t really that dumb back then (from your picture you look like you might be old enough to know firsthand), and the idea that you could not just minimize user controls indefinitely was well understood and mocked in such whimsical illustrations.

  22. danielwall says

    I fear that some company will make a watch like that one up there and it will become all the rage. “What, you can’t push the buttons on this? You want bigger buttons? Okay boomer!”

  23. PaulBC says

    From an archived edition.

    Before you write to comment on our cover’s “unusual” design approach [created by artist Robert Tinney] keep in mind the proximity of April 1.

    Those were fun times. I was 15 and this was the kind of thing I lived for. A lot of the predictions were off, but we weren’t idiots.

  24. ajbjasus says

    My gripe about the buttons that still exist is the lack of haptic feedback. At one time you pressed an on off button and it clicked and you knew something was going to happen, Now you press it and have no idea if it has worked or not. Oh, and as someone whose used to spend a lot of time staying in hotels on business, don’t get me started on tv and product designers who seem to think it’s a good idea to disguise or hide on off buttons on TVs so it’s impossible to find them.

  25. lotharloo says

    Buttons are alright. I think we are the laughing stock of the future with our stupid as fuck “smart phones” and their beyond-idiotic user interface, aweful and harmful postures that they force our bodies into, and unbelievably inefficient routines that they impose on us. I just typed this on a “smart phone” and it took me probably 5 times longer than it would have taken me on a proper keyboard.

  26. says

    Damn, I thought you meant buttons as in clothing.
    I have indeed a great liking for that kind of buttons. When my gran didn’t know what to do with me she just handed me her box of buttons and I’d be happy for hours.
    The fabric store here has a big box where they pour their leftover buttons. It’s about 1m x 1m x 0.5m and you can dig through it and get the buttons for cheap and it’s paradise.

  27. lumipuna says

    Personally, I’m much more into women doing pin-up poses. As in, holding pins seductively up to camera.

    (This was a joke on sexual fetishism in Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal. As a fetishist, I felt nicely represented when I saw it.)

  28. charles says

    Great American Satan @ 20 My cat, Amanda, would jump on my desk, hit which ever keys to fire up the laser printer. Then jump over to the printer. I don’t think it put out much heat, but the sound and vibration where satisfying.

  29. Jazzlet says

    I’m with Giliell, I thought you meant sew on buttons, my grandmother and my mother both let me play with their button tins to keep me quiet and I still have many of those buttons. I was also allowed to organise the tangle of left over lengths of embroidery wool and silk to keep me out of mischief, which I loved though I couldn’t understand why the threads were all tangled up again so jolly soon. The ultimate joy was to be allowed to tie sets of buttons together with some of the thread …

  30. Chakat Firepaw says

    @Reginald Selkirk #13

    …it adds an extra column of 6 keys on the left. I have no idea what they do, but they are shiny.

    Those are for macros that can be assigned with the keyboard’s software.

  31. PaulBC says

    whheydt@43 According to Jeannette:

    This switch is somewhat larger than expected, but does a fantastic job for what we need to use it for.

    I guess there are more mad scientist labs out there than I ever knew.

  32. John Morales says

    Overloading of words which diminishes their impact, ah well. Language evolves.
    Poverty porn. Famine porn. Inspiration porn. Violence porn.

    Now… button porn.

    (sigh)

  33. PaulBC says

    @49 In fact, the correct term in my case is not porn but nostalgia. Not that that makes it any better. Seeing that Byte cover again really made my day.

  34. whheydt says

    Re: John Morales @ #49…
    My son refers to the David Weber “Honor Harrington” as spaceship porn.

  35. John Morales says

    [OT]]

    whheydt, your son has good taste, and as I noted, language evolves.

    When I was much younger, I voraciously read absolutely every single SF thing I could get my hands on… including the Spaceways books. Soft-porn schlock space pulp.

    :)

  36. Ridana says

    So I’m in love with that Byte watch, because I’m mad for miniatures (the tiny floppy was the first thing I noticed). Functional miniatures for massive bonus points. It’s probably my second biggest fetish after things that fit perfectly into spaces or accidentally align. See https://www.reddit.com/r/Perfectfit/ for examples. They had one gif of a Fex-Ex semi backing perfectly into a dock slot in one go, with no more than a foot clearance on either side. It was downright orgasmic. :D

    I like buttons too, as long as there’s some tactile feedback on whether they engaged or not.

  37. davidc1 says

    Now that’s what i call a mad scientist lab ,complete with wonderful sounds .
    And not a button in sight ,

    There is a story about the late Peter Sellers around the time LED watches were the thing .
    It seems there was a doorman at the BBC who Sellers disliked ,so he bought him a LED watch ,if you remember them ,you had to press a button on the side to get the display .
    The doorman only had one arm .

  38. kenbakermn says

    Reminds me of when I worked for a short time in a power plant near St. Clair, MI. The control room, a fairly large room, was basically nothing but buttons, literally thousands of them either in rectangular arrays or on large charts graphically depicting various processes.

    Gotta be honest, though, I’m not entirely turned off by button porn. It was kind of cool. But I do hope those power plants use more modern control systems by now.

  39. PaulBC says

    davidc1@54 That’s a mad chem lab. Nice as far is it goes, but I still want one with Jacob’s ladders, even if their purpose is never made clear. And a hefty DPDT knife switch to turn them on and off. (Unclear why I need a double throw, but I’ll take it.)

    Actually, I’m joking about that. At least I don’t know where I’d put any of it. The one piece of retro technology I sincerely covet is the Curta calculator.

    The Curta’s design is a descendant of Gottfried Leibniz’s Stepped Reckoner and Charles Thomas’s Arithmometer, accumulating values on cogs, which are added or complemented by a stepped drum mechanism. It has an extremely compact design: a small cylinder that fits in the palm of the hand.

    I had no idea anything like this existed until about 10 years ago. My father used to have desktop adding machines before calculators were available. Those were fun to watch, but clunky. The Curta is a work of art. It has a fascinating history too.

  40. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    My dad worked for RCA computer division in the early 60s, down in Palm Beach Florida. He left them for Pan Am at JFK for a couple years. RCA recruited him back (with his seniority) when they moved to Massachusetts (which DEC snapped up when RCA decided to leave the computer business) I remember, in Florida, they printed an image, using text characters, for a demo of their fancy computer, being a major competitor to IBM. RCA was the first to use transistors, then the first to use ICs.
    In Florida, my dad exploited his employee discount to be the first on the block to buy a color TV. woohee.
    oh nostalgia

  41. Annie Bruce says

    I like buttons. I’d be ecstatic if an Android phone came out with physical home buttons, or a physical camera button(or perhaps a programmable button). Sometimes having that quick button with proper tactile feedback can really help, or it can be a nice always available shortcut to an important feature no matter how deep in other screens you are.

    That said, the seas of buttons that sometimes come up are absurd. My printer is about 10 years old and even by the eras standards it could do without half of them.

  42. rockwhisperer says

    From 1981 to 1992, I worked as a hardware and system engineer on radar simulators for military flight trainers. The things consisted of banks of circuit cards in five or six cabinets that were about 2.5 feet wide 2.5 feet deep by 7 feet tall. They were constructed and tested in-plant, then each cabinet would be crated separately to be shipped to the training base where they’d be installed.

    Each system had several big red buttons labeled EMERGENCY STOP, which should instantly turn off the several large power supplies in this entire row of cabinets. But often the people assembling the thing for test didn’t bother to hook up the buttons. It was a hassle, and they would have to be disconnected for shipping and then reconnected.

    One night I was working by myself testing part of a simulator. I had a miserable cold, and completely plugged sinuses. So when a circuit board caught fire on the other side of the system at the other end of the row of cabinets, I had no idea. I was busy probing a circuit board with an oscilloscope, trying to find a hardware bug. Cabinets blocked my view of the smoke, and my nose was basically inoperable. A passing security guard shouted at me to get away! and came running up to hit a big red button. No effect. But test engineers also came running from another test area, and knew how to shut the cabinets down individually. (Nobody ever taught us design engineers where all the unlabeled shutoffs were.)

    Buttons. They only work if you wire them up usefully.

  43. fishy says

    Is anyone here old enough to remember foot switches in vehicles?
    You might remember one for high or low beams, but I still remember one for the starter motor.

  44. stroppy says

    Sure, I think a lot of us here remember the foot buttons. When I was young we had a tractor that had the same kind of button for a starter, but it was positioned so that you’d reach down and press it with your thumb. And there was no gas pedal, instead there was a ratcheted lever behind the steering wheel that you operated by hand to give it the gas, man.

  45. PaulBC says

    davidc1@64 Yes, though I wonder if all those electric sparks are such a great idea. Not if there are any flammable gases involved anyway.

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