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Buttons Not Buttons

Friday, December 12, 2014 - 03:07 PM

(Photo Credit: Włodi/Flickr)

Buttons are usually small and unimportant. But not always. Sometimes they are a portal to power, freedom, and destruction. Today we thread together tales of taking charge of the little things in life, of fortunes made and lost, and of the ease with which the world can end. 

Confused? Push the button marked Play.


Special thanks for the music of Brian Carpenter's Ghost Train Orchestra


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Comments [59]

V from Massachusetts

Just listened to this episode. I went to Button Gwinnett Elementary School in Georgia and was excited to learn a little more about its namesake. In Liberty County, Georgia they are very proud of their two signers of the Declaration of Independence (Lyman Hall is also from Liberty County). Another Georgia county is also named after Mr. Gwinnett, so his name lives on even if he had no descendants.

Aug. 27 2015 12:51 PM

I'm a little late to the game, can anyone tell me the name of the artist and track that's playing at 14:20? Is it also from Coraline?

Jul. 06 2015 12:21 PM

The first two parts of this podcast were pretty interesting and humorous. however, the third section regarding the "nuclear button" especially caught my ear, especially since my first four years as an Air Force officer were spent as an ICBM Missile Launch Officer ('77-'81)...interesting times...

Apr. 07 2015 04:50 AM
Edgar D. Havisham

Buttons were not something that was on my mind but then when I listened to this podcast it sparked a whole new light on the subject. My favorite part was when it talked about the atomic bomb detonator button because it reminded me of when the movies make fun of that issue. It was really interesting when it also talked about elevators and that the close button doesn't work but instead is just a psychological tool to make it seem faster. This podcast turned out to be unexpectedly pleasant.

Mar. 30 2015 09:10 PM
Sir Lancelot from my bathroom

I thought this was a clever addition to the radiolab archives. To go in detail of bottons, the different types, people, and the most dangerous of them all. There is no telling where they could have taken this topic. It was really interesting to note that one of the founding fathers was a bum, and signature was the most valued of all signatures on the Declaration of Independence.

Mar. 23 2015 06:54 PM
Roz from Richmond, VA

Does anyone else think it's funny that the dude told them to go up some stairs to get to the elevator museum?? This was a fun short.

Feb. 11 2015 01:51 PM
Agatha M. Silverstein

I must find buttons so irrelevant because I thought this podcast was about buttons on clothing before I listened to it. Anyhow, I think nonfunctional door close buttons on elevators have to be the most clever, yet frustrating mind game on humanity. But, the excuse about elevator memory kind of messed up this discovery for me. Moving on, this NPR was boring until the discussion about the atomic bomb. From the bomb’s missing piece to Truman being unaware of the bomb’s detonation, my mind was blown. I was not expecting that. I absolutely LOVED the proposal about having the President single-handedly kill one person before ever being able to detonate an atomic bomb. Any objection to this proposal just shows how inhumane and vain our society can be.

Feb. 03 2015 03:09 AM
Harriet Truman from florida

I honestly didn't know what to expect from this radio lab. "Buttons Not Buttons" could really mean anything. That's really funny how most elevator close door buttons don't work. Not many people would know that and it's a really cool fun fact. I hate waiting for elevators to close so next time I'll try the arm trick. I like how in the button museum its just not the buttons you would think. The big red button is the generic button I would think of but its funny to know its not real. I like how they went into depth about each kind of "button."

Feb. 02 2015 10:02 PM
Agatha Y. Coleridge

It was very interesting how they used the concept of buttons to wrap these three entirely different stories together. I didn’t know what to expect but after listening to the podcast, I understood why they used the title “Buttons not Buttons.” The first story about the elevator museum showed how some buttons could be misleading, such as how eighty percent of all elevator’s close buttons don’t work. Then they talk about Button Gwinnett who is one of the founding fathers of the Declaration of Independence. They discuss how he has a signature that is one of the most valuable in the world, showing how something so small could have such great significance. Then in the last story, the “button” is used to refer to those used in weapons and war, and how just the push of a button could lead to vast destruction.

Feb. 02 2015 09:09 PM
mckenzie male

This podcast was pretty interesting because i actually thought that buttons always worked! the close button on an elevator actually doesnt work, it just makes you feel better about yourself! so funny :)

Feb. 02 2015 08:50 PM
gabi vallu from rio de janeiro

Coraline movie soundtrack.. I see what u did there... haha *_*

Jan. 28 2015 01:49 PM
Dante Lovecraft from Florida

I have to say it is not much of a surprise that the close buttons usually don’t work in elevators. They are more of an anger release than a functional button. The story about Button Gwinnett is very interesting, I had never heard of him. Yet his signature is one of the rarest and most valuable in American history.

Jan. 26 2015 10:40 PM
Toni R Sinclair from FL

This was a very interesting podcast with three unique stories about buttons. The first story was about going to the elevator museum. I found it shocking how 80% of the close-door buttons on elevators do not work. This was news to me! The second story about Button Gwinnett was very shocking because a man who is known by few has such a valuable signature. The last story was about the big red button that the president has or so it is said. I definitely learned a lot from this podcast and enjoyed listening as usual.

Jan. 26 2015 09:43 PM
Archimbold S. Hannibal

This was a very interesting podcast. The elevator hack is very useful. It will help with getting places faster for sure. Button Guinet's signature's worth was the most interesting part of this talk. The fact that a very little known man's signature is one of the most expensive in the world is almost humorous. The fact that he did virtually nothing and now has one of the most valuable signatures shows how one can amount something, one way or another.

Jan. 26 2015 06:31 PM
Catniss J. Plath

This episode was very humorous. Who knew the elevator close button did not work? And to take 3.5 seconds off your waiting time in the elevator by quickly moving your arm is funny to hear. I would never have thought that the most valuable signature in the world is from the unknown Button Guinet. This was insightful.

Jan. 26 2015 03:47 PM
Anna B. Silverstein

I found the last segment the most interesting, while it makes me happy that there is no literal button that can destroy the world, it's a little disturbing that it is still relatively easy. I actually like Fischer's idea. Also, it is ironic that a man no one has heard of has one of the most valuable signatures in the world. I started out confused listening, but it turned out to be something I'm glad I listened to.

Jan. 25 2015 04:28 PM

This was as fascinating as they come—a solid podcast! Thanks for the interesting stories!

Jan. 21 2015 02:39 PM
Arthur B Kells from Florida

Buttons are fascinating devices that give people the power to change entire systems with one press. The idea of inputting commands through the form of buttons is very enticing because of the comical value that they bring. The stereotypical button is a big red one that has some destructive power. However, people use buttons in everyday life when they type on a keyboard or manipulate any other electrical device. Buttons are our link to the electronic world.

Jan. 20 2015 09:35 PM
Catniss S. Vonnegut from Oviedo

Buttons is such a general topic but it amazes me how many things can be connected through buttons. There are so many buttons that people unthinkingly press in day to day life. It is kind of crazy to think how such a little thing can dictate hundreds of different parts of a persons day. I also found the elevator hack kind of funny, as it saves a whole 45 minutes of your life. Its kind of weird to think that a signature we see all the time is of a guy named Button who was a serial debtor from England. Button died shortly after signing the Declaration and his signature is one of the rarest in the world. I feel so lied to that there is no big red button like in Hollywood that could drop a bomb and end the world.

Jan. 20 2015 07:01 PM
Katniss B. Sinclair

I find this podcast pretty hilarious in the sense of how easily we humans overlook and take for granted the tiniest of inventions. Can you even imagine a life without buttons? Life would honestly be ten times harder because that ranges from elevator buttons to buttons on life support machines. My mind was going wild with thoughts when listening to this. However, I feel that there NEEDS to be a big red button in the White House. I agree with one of the earlier comments saying they felt lied to by the government and more importantly Hollywood. Since when does Hollywood lie?(sarcasm) Seriously it doesn't even have to hook up to anything, and who wouldn't enjoy pressing a big red button once in a while..

Jan. 20 2015 01:03 AM
Jane J. Asimov from oviedo fl

Life. Its complex and crazy. So many things dictate and control our lives but I never would have thought something as simple as a button would be one of them. The more that I think about it though, buttons our vital to our lives. Everyday I hit millions of buttons: my phone, My computer, elevators, remote, radios, etc. The story about the elevator door close button cracked me up. I've stood there pounding that button countless times and now I feel like an Idiot.

Jan. 19 2015 10:46 PM
Toni L. Gatsby from NY

This is an incredible podcast. I have NEVER thought about the importance of buttons in my life. The power the button gives to an individual is fascinating, and almost always ignored. The power of the button isn't fully shown here, I believe that in this example, the power to have power is shown. Whether the close door command is located on a button or not doesn't relate to the thirst for power. The second story is also fascinating, and I think that it is crazy how one unknown signature is worth so much. The last story shows how one needs to know the value of the life of one innocent person.

Jan. 19 2015 10:22 PM
Anna Morrison from Florida, USA

This podcast was very interesting. I'd never really thought about how prevalent buttons are in our lives. Between elevators and all different types of various technologies, buttons play an integral role in our lives. I have had a good deal of experience with elevators, since I was little, since my family was always active in the city. When I was little, I used to cry hysterically if one of my parents would press the elevator buttons, as I loved to do it. I have also heard of most of the tricks with the elevator buttons. However, I didn't know that so many of the close door buttons were non-functioning and I found that very interesting as well as perplexing. Why can't these buttons be fixed and maintained? I think the whole concept of buttons literally controlling our lives is pretty interesting and true.

Jan. 19 2015 09:37 PM
Sherlock D. Whiler from United States

This podcast’s name was the main purpose that I wanted to listen to it. You don’t really think about these things; these stories were interesting to say the least. I thought that, however random, buttons do take on this feel of control and power. Before listening, pushing buttons are automatic, without question. It’s like saying a word over and over again, and then you start to actually question the meaning of it. Buttons, when thinking about it, are there to give people something to push to feel like they have control. People expect this, whether it be an elevator or the buttons on a microwave.

Jan. 19 2015 10:30 AM
Ayn A Tennyson from Florida

It can be quite comical when we discover things that we never thought about, such as elevator buttons! Who would have thought that some of them generally don't work?? I have experienced this first hand but always have thought that I had bad luck with them. It is reassuring to know that they don't work for many other people too :) . It is also fascinating to think about how such a little think like a button can hold so many expectations and much power. Whenever we press a button, we expect something from it, whether it is to open a door or set off a bomb. It is crazy that such a little thing can do so much!!

Jan. 18 2015 10:18 PM
Anna J. Silverstein

First of all, I had no clue that most close door buttons in elevator sometimes don't work. Mind blown :)! Who knew the signature of an unknown signer of the Declaration of Independence could be worth more than Lincoln and Franklin. I guess if supply is low and people suddenly want the signature they will pay almost anything to get it. I sure learned a lot from this podcast.

Jan. 18 2015 02:21 PM
Ender J Hayden from Florida

I found this podcast humorous and interesting. I never considered how complex elevators were. I found it interesting that the close door button only works 80% of the time. The theme of buttons was a cool way to tie all of these items together. Before this podcast, I never paid much attention to the intricacies of buttons, but now I will pay more attention to them. It was very cool to know that the whole "button" the President pressed in order to drop the nukes was not a button at all, and it was an arbitrary decision. This podcast was very cool and fun to listen to.

Jan. 18 2015 10:26 AM
Virginia T. Ripley from Florida

I found this podcast quite humorous at some points. The story about the elevator buttons I found pretty funny and true, it reminds me of some of my past experiences with some sketchy elevators. Then they talk about a man who was a signer of the declaration of independence named Button Gwinnett. Honestly until now I have never heard of this man so this part of the podcast is quite shocking to me because there are many people who are completely unaware with this man and the importance he has in our country. They also talk about the power that the government and military have to just press a button a be able to blow up an entire country. I found this podcast interesting and informative.

Jan. 16 2015 10:47 AM
Lorelei M. Coleridge

This podcast's three-part structure is an effective way to present several short stories. However, aside from the presence of a single word, there is no commection among them. The first, about buttons in elevators, provides useful advice in how to regain one's sense of effectiveness in elevators by getting the door to close more quickly. The second tale was interesting as a little-known fact about a well-known historical document. The third segment seemed slightly obvious. With the number of regulations and processes for everything else in the government, of course there wouldn't just be a "big red button." It is disturbing how accessible the use of nuclear weapons was to begin with, however. From a purely logical standpoint, I agree that the suggested plan to make it difficult made total sense. Overall, despite its disjointed quality, this podcast made for an interesting and informative half hour.

Jan. 13 2015 12:28 PM
Katniss C. Kafkha from mars

I really enjoyed this NPR, although spectacle at first. How could a button or elevator museum be interesting?? It seems that we do not give them enough credit. I was intrigued by the fact that 80% of the door close buttons on elevators do not work! And now, if I ever get stuck on a floor with no one, I can just put my arm before the sensors and have the door shut. Also, I have always wondered if the big detonation button is actually a button.....seeing as how it is depicted in Hollywood in many different forms. I come to find out, that it actually isn't! I feel like I have been lied to by the government!

Jan. 12 2015 11:44 PM
Ender M Gatsby from An Elevator

Buttons, who knew they could be so very interesting. Personally I have always found them interesting and always want to push them no matter what. These things are so simple and looked over everyday but I think they are interesting. I like how they took a twist with the man named Button who was one of the founding fathers. I had not known about him at all and it is crazy how valuable his signature is and will be due to the lack of signed papers. In the other story I enjoy the idea of the codes being within the heart of a living person so that the president would have to kill and see death on a minor scale before seeing it in a major scale. Buttons may be small but they can have a large impact from the mundane to the modern war.

Jan. 12 2015 09:29 PM
Huxley Wilder

There were few real gems in this one, such as "How could it be that arbitrarily valuable if i could just rip it up???" and buildings are "Crazy ass vertical stacks of humanity."
One thing I really enjoyed the idea about the president having to cut a nuclear launch code out of another mans heart. in this podcast was the stand prevent a war. The weight of that, that the president would have to kill in order to drop bombs. He would have to understand death, he would have to face the reality of being responsible for ending someones existence. Definitely an idea to think about.

Jan. 12 2015 09:13 PM
Oscar Rosseau

This was a very interesting podcast. The focus on strange but also made sense as it tied the stories together. Its amazing how such a little piece of technology is used so often, even with incredibly important things. I also though it was funny that the door close buttons in elevators don't really do anything most of the time.

Jan. 12 2015 09:05 PM
Sherlock T. Dickinson

Well, I thought this was a very interesting talk. Buttons were a very interesting method to relate stories that weren't based on buttons. They did, however, emphasize the vulnerability, value, and hidden greatness of the button. It is associated with so many things, from the EASY Button to the "big red button" used by just about every cartoon villain. Buttons symbolize a mechanism that is so innocent, so simple, yet one that can have profound effects. It is a form of technology that everyone takes for granted, abuses it, smacks it, slaps it, yet it means so much more than anyone might ever imagine.

Jan. 12 2015 07:48 PM
Milo C. Rousseau from Florida

I admit the whole "button" thing was kind of a loose way to tie these stories together, but they were all honestly interesting. I wouldn't have minded a whole podcast dedicated to either of these subjects. I had already heard that the close-door buttons in elevators rarely work, but I had never even heard of the one Button guy or the details for how the president can start nuclear war. Putting the codes in a guy's heart would be disturbingly effective in preventing that.

Jan. 12 2015 03:46 PM
Asimov M. Gandalf from Orlando, FL

A man named Button signed the Declaration of Independence and his signature is worth almost $800,000. Crazy. But great Podcast.

Jan. 11 2015 09:32 PM
Upton D. Wilder

I really enjoyed this podcast. Who know that buttons could bring about fortunes on one hand and world domination on the other? I watched this podcast because of the caption under it. It didn't make any sense how buttons could be either incredibly great or wipe out great masses of people. After listening this makes a whole lot more sense. I always enjoy listening to the stories these pod casts tell and I found this one very interesting. This podcast did a good job explaining how some thing so small and insignificant has actually played a huge role in history.

Jan. 11 2015 03:53 PM
Catniss C Whitman

Buttons Not Buttons was a very interesting podcast about three unique stories about buttons. The first story was about going to the elevator museum and how eighty percent of the close door buttons on elevators do not work. This is a very interesting statistic considering that I always am pushing the button over and over until the door actually closes. The reasoning behind it is actually intriguing that elevators are set for certain time. This however does not leave us in a lack of power because most everything in our lives are consumed in technology which makes our lives easier not powerless. The second story about Button Gwinnett was very shocking that a man who is known by a select few can have such a valuable signature. I agree with wanting to rip it up because I do not understand why our world would have such a high value on a person's signed name just because there aren't many of them. There are far more influential people in the world whose worth should be much higher than Buttons. The last button story was about the big red button that the president has or so it is said. There is no real big red button that the president has which can destroy the world but many theories of where the nuclear codes should be. When we landed the two atomic bombs in Japan President Truman did not order them but only approved of them. This in my opinion is surprising that the ruler of our country did not issue the bombs in the first place. Like many different theories, I feel that the president needs to see what one innocent death is before deciding to kill thousands upon thousands of others. This will test the need for the bomb to only use it in dire situations. I definitely learned a lot from this podcast and enjoyed listening as usual.

Jan. 11 2015 03:20 PM
Ricardo Montebaum from United States

I thought the 'Close Door' button on elevators had to be operational to pass safety inspections (ASME A17.1 Requirements "Phase II Emergency In-Car Operation) because firefighters and rescue personnel need to open and close the doors on command?

Jan. 07 2015 03:24 PM
Tim Boyer from Cortland, Ohio

The reason I knew about Button Gwinnett was a science fiction story from my youth. Isaac Asimov wrote a short story in 1953 called 'Button, Button' which featured a scientist who tried to raise money by building a time machine and going back in the past to retrieve a rare and valuable signature - that of Button Gwinnett. Ever since then the name has stuck in my head. When I drove to Georgia for the first time and saw all of those 'Gwinnett County' license plates, I knew who it was named after!

Dec. 23 2014 07:41 PM

I agree with Michael... any primary sources on the segment about Truman not knowing the exact deployment date of the A-Bomb?

Dec. 22 2014 10:13 AM
Patrick Perry from Bucks County, PA

I loved this story. Have you heard of the History Eraser Button? The beautiful shiny (red) button? The jolly candy-like button? Ren & Stimpy rock, check this short clip to see what I mean.

Dec. 20 2014 12:44 AM
Rolando Natalizia from Paraguay

Excellent episode, as always!
Regarding elevators and buttons, this "intelevator" voice activated elevator prank is a lot of fun:

And the idea of a butcher knife as a hard-to-press button to avoid nuclear annihilation is brilliant. Perhaps it should be mandatory that one of the president´s children be the codes bearer. That button should be really, really, really hard to press.

Happy Holidays to all the Radiolab team!

Dec. 18 2014 12:33 PM
R J from Chicago, IL

Regarding the suggestion that the President would never stab a staffer to launch nuclear codes, I think it is a bad metaphor-- too one sided. It would be a better test if at the decision point, the staffer was told to mortally attack the President and/or his family and the President had to defend the attack with a knife. Only after successfully defending and killing the staffer would he have access to the codes. I could see how the President would then understand the true weight of his decision and use the codes.

Dec. 17 2014 11:34 AM

Of course they don't work. When if you ever pushed the door close button in an elevator and it actually responded by closing the doors? Never!

(actually I work in a high-tech office building in our elevator close door button to do work. They are the only ones I have ever encountered in my entire life that do.)

Dec. 16 2014 09:23 PM

What's the name of the music at 7:59?

Dec. 16 2014 05:14 PM

Good episode, but the elevator segment was hard to listen to as it was so often a bunch of people talking at the same time. :(

Dec. 16 2014 03:01 PM

Does anyone know what the music playing at 14:00 minutes in is?

Dec. 16 2014 10:10 AM
Michael Ashton from Denver, CO

I've been trying to find a primary source for some of the information about Truman's timing in finding out about the bomb. Could you please direct me to some citations?

Dec. 16 2014 01:07 AM

I love that they use music from the movie Coraline in this episode! Since buttons play a primary role in that book/movie it is particularly apt.

Dec. 15 2014 12:21 PM
sepiae from european waters

I just love that the proprietor of the elevator museum, who's never left the elevator trade since the age of 7, has this slightly monotonous and laconic tone of voice... :)
Code-capsule segment: what a brilliant idea! :) Though predictable never to see the light of realization; 2nd thing advisers and brass would say is, 'well Mr. P., if you think the [EnemyOfChoice/Time] is doing the same, go right ahead...'
But there's a story in there, beyond the story here... Screenplay.

Dec. 15 2014 03:57 AM
Andrea Muraskin from Indianapolis

I love how gleeful Robert sounds in this episode and Latif's semi-nuttiness. Radiolab par excelance.

Dec. 14 2014 11:27 AM
Ralph Sandoval

While listening to the Buttons episode, especially the elevator button story, it made me recal some of my experiences. I was in charge of the air conditioning system of a large office building in which, as any HVAC person will tell you, men and women had different opinions about the temperature in the room. A room which is comfortable for men may be "freezing" to women. So I was assigned the task of "fixing the building." The solution was to go in the women's offices and install a thermostat with local temperature controls so they could "adjust the temperature" the only thing about the thermostats was that they were not wired to anything and therefore offered no control of the room temperature. Amazingly, this was the most comfortable building the women had ever worked in.

Dec. 13 2014 09:43 PM
John G from Holyoke, MA

Was, Not Was

Dec. 13 2014 05:53 PM

I just wanted to let the guy who was at the library with Robert know that his impulse to rip up the signatures or set off fire alarms while at the same time being totally horrified by the idea and never likely to actually do it is a classic symptom of OCD. They're the obsessions, as distinct from the compulsions. He may already know this, but to many undiagnosed people it's a huge relief to know that those intrusive, appalling thoughts are not plans or wishes. They intrude precisely because they're so counter to what you would actually do.

Dec. 13 2014 08:34 AM


Email us at and we'll try to send you an mp3 of your 15 seconds.

Dec. 13 2014 08:24 AM
Robin Datta from Fresno, CA

What if a cardiac surgeon or a forensic pathologist becomes the POTUS?

Dec. 13 2014 05:17 AM
Mardeen Gordon from Ben Lomond CA

My friends tell me that they heard my voice reading the Radiolab credits on Saturday 12-8. I wasn't able to listen to KAZU that day, but I subscribe to the podcast, so I figured I would get to hear it eventually.
Well, the "Button" episode finally appeared today, but - no credits! I listened to it via the website - it just ends right after the zipper rag. I tried downloading it from the app - same thing! What gives?
If my friends hadn't told me I never would have known at all. I don't even know for sure if this is the right episode.
How can I enjoy my fifteen seconds of fame?

Mardeen Gordon

Dec. 13 2014 01:33 AM
Al from a very old house

For no real reason, A few words from author Neil Gaiman on Koumpounophobia (the fear of buttons):

Dec. 12 2014 10:43 PM

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