Push-Button Manor (Dec, 1950)

Push-Button Manor
Jackson, Mich.

By Arthur R. Railton

REMEMBER those wartime dreams of lazy living in postwar homes with push buttons to do all the work? Well, like most of us, you’re probably still getting by in a house where the only push button rings the doorbell. But there’s at least one fellow who is making those dreams come true.

Emil Mathias of Jackson, Mich., traces his mechanical aptitude back to his youth when he harnessed the wind to grind the family’s weekly supply of coffee. A small windmill, some gears, a shaft or two, all went together to create a power coffee grinder that Mathias still remembers as one of his favorite devices.

Ever since that day, about 25 years ago, he’s been figuring out ways to make electricity and mechanics do more work around the house. He still recalls with a smile another youthful venture. It was an electric doorbell chime. Five pie pans and a magnetic clapper were the raw materials. Hooked up by young Mathias, they provided a reasonable facsimile of today’s fancy-sounding door chimes. And that was a quarter of a century ago.

Today, he and his wife and son live in a neat, six-room house where just about anything can be done by pressing a button. To make this possible, Mathias has strung 7000 feet of wire and installed innumerable switches, relays and motors. He uses low-voltage current, reducing the fire hazard and expense. Incidentally, his electricity bill is not much larger than that for an ordinary household, despite the many push buttons.

To the casual visitor, the Mathias house looks no different from any other comfortable American home — until Mathias touches a switch and things begin to happen! Everything is hidden away between floor joists or walls. There are no dangling wires. You wouldn’t suspect the presence of scores of mechanical servants that await your command.

But just step into the nerve center of the system, a closet in Mathias’ bedroom, and you realize that this house is unlike any you’ve ever seen! The walls of the closet are lined with paraphernalia. Switches, relays, clocks that turn on things, clocks that turn off things, thermostats, transformers, rectifiers, yards of wire connecting everything to something else! To the uninformed, it’s an electrician’s nightmare, but to Mathias it all makes sense. Everything has a practical function. There’s no Rube Goldberg scheme in the place.

Mathias believes that half the fun of having something is making it. Every one of his mechanical servants is his own design and construction. He admits he could have bought commercial models in many cases, but where’s the fun in that?

Take that elevator I’m building on the basement stairs,” he explains. “I could buy one of those home elevators, but that would eliminate most of the fun. So I’m building one myself.”

When the doctor said Mrs. Mathias should cut down the number of trips up and down stairs, Mathias went to work on the elevator. He got a few lengths of square door track, like the kind barn doors slide in, and bolted them to the side of-the stairway. A rectangular steel platform, just large enough for one person to stand on, is the “cage.” Its supporting brackets slide smoothly inside the door track. Push-button switches on the safety railing at waist height control the reversible motor that operates the elevator. Push one button, you ride downstairs to the basement. Push the other and you ride up!

Step into the bedroom and Mathias flips a wall switch. The draperies close automatically over the two windows. A surplus bombsight motor in the basement does the work. He throws another switch and the windows close. The radio in the living room can be turned on and off from the bedroom (and from the kitchen and basement as well). Extension speakers bring the sound to you wherever you are.

Clocks in the closet shut the radio off at 10 o’clock each night and turn it on at 6 a.m. On Saturdays and Sundays, the radio stays on until 11 and resumes at 8 in the morning. A special switch cuts out the shut-off clock, if Mathias wants to listen to programs after the usual sign-off hour.

When Mrs. Mathias sits down at her dressing table she doesn’t have to fumble with the twin lamps to turn them on. She merely pulls out the center drawer a fraction of an inch and the lights go on. A microswitch in the drawer does the trick.

The house and garage are protected by a burglar alarm that goes on automatically at bedtime and shuts itself off in the morning. If anybody opens a door in the house or garage during the night, the yard lights go on and a buzzer sounds in the bedroom. An interphone picks up any sounds in the garage and pipes them into the bedroom.

Scattered around the house are fire alarms — simply spring-type clothespins held open by a thin thread. Should fire break out, the thread burns through, releasing the clothespin jaws which close a circuit, sounding an alarm.

Should it rain during the night or when the Mathias family is away, there’s no chance of water damaging the plaster or furnishings. Beneath a downspout is a small metal cup that tips down when filled with water, operating a switch that closes the windows!

The garage doors are opened and closed remotely from a light post alongside the driveway. Mathias simply puts a key in a lock in the post, turns it and the door opens. Inside the garage he throws another switch and the door closes. Or he can open and close the doors from the kitchen. A 1/4-horsepower motor in the garage ceiling does the work.

Press the doorbell button and you automatically turn on the porch light. If there’s nobody home, the light goes off in three minutes. A thermostatic switch is hooked into the light circuit. When you ring the doorbell, a relay turns on a small light bulb under the bellows of the thermostatic switch. It takes three minutes for the heat from the bulb to expand the thermostat enough to open the switch, turning off the light.

Mathias is a bit apologetic about the incompleteness of his push-button house.

“We’ve lived here only two years and it takes time to do everything,” he explains.

In the house he lived in previously, Mathias had a complex system for checking locked doors nightly. Mrs. Mathias had challenged her husband to eliminate the nightly chore of walking around trying every door to make certain it was locked.

Taking up the challenge, he came up with the solution. A simple light circuit was set up to run through every exterior door lock in the house. When the bolts were all latched, the current ran through, lighting the lamp in the bedroom. If one was unlocked, the circuit was broken and the light failed to go on when he turned on the test switch. He’s planning to add this to his new house and it will include the garage doors.

“There’s always something for me to do,” Mathias says. “I’m working on an automatic lawn sprinkler that will turn on the water during the night for any preset time. And I have almost finished work on a remote control that will enable me to tune the radio to any station from any place in the house.

“But what I really want to get working on is a mechanical waitress for our basement picnics. We have a long table and when there’s a crowd here it takes too much time and effort passing food from one end of the table to the other. The way I figure it, electric trains running on tracks in the center of the table will do the job. There’ll be switches at each plate and if you want more salad, you press the button and the train rolls up with the salad bowl.”

Push-Button Manor will never be quite finished.

7 comments
  1. Stannous says: December 16, 200610:01 pm

    The author of this article now serves as the editor of The Dukes County Intelligencer, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s quarterly journal of Island history.
    I’ve sent it to him.

  2. Stannous says: December 17, 20066:14 am

    And though the technology to build them has changed, every innovation mentioned has a modern counterpart.

  3. icelander says: December 17, 200610:22 am

    Everything is hidden away between floor joists or walls. There are no dangling wires. You wouldn’t suspect the presence of scores of mechanical servants that await your command.

    Proof that a wife is a geek’s best friend. They don’t tolerate anything ugly or complicated, and force you to find better, easier solutions.

  4. meneame.net says: December 18, 200612:56 pm

    La casa automática (1950)…

    [Inglés] Reportaje aparecido en el Popular Mechanics de diciembre de 1950, se presentaba lo que era la casa automática de aquellos entonces, realizada por Emil Mathias: puertas y ventanas que se abren y cierran, luces que se encienden y apagan, la radi…

  5. La casa automatizada de 1950 says: December 19, 20064:20 pm

    [...] Curioso echarle un ojo a estas 5 páginas en esta web. [...]

  6. [...] Push-button manor (via History of the Button) [...]

  7. […] 1950, Popular Mechanics featured a unique home in Jackson, Michigan.  The Push-Button Manor was created by Emil Mathias, a man who acquired his mechanical skills in his youth making […]

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