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Re: "to throw a switch"

Posted by Pamela on February 02, 2007

In Reply to: Re: "To throw a switch" posted by pamela on February 02, 2007

: : : : : What's the origin of the phrase "to throw a switch"? Why are switches "thrown"?

: : : : Throwing a switch is moving a lever -- as in throwing a railroad switch. Maybe the motion reminded someone of throwing an object.

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: : : There's also the question: what else would you call it? As ESC notes, you use the phrase "throw the switch" most often when there is a lever to throw (that is, to cause to change position by force). In talking about other switches, of all sorts of shapes and sizes, we most often refer to that which is switched. Turn on the lamp, turn on the computer, turn on the juice, turn on the charm. If we say "turn the switch," which may be a non-rotary switch, we are directing one's attention to the switch itself, and I suspect that particular phrase is used either because we're not sure what the switched thing is called, or we wish the person at the switch to get a move on.

: : : Like many English phrases, this one can be used figuratively, and then even more figuratively. Although it sounds most appropriate when there's a lever to move, it can be used effectively whenever there is a sifnificant magnitude of something controlled by the switch or the switching. "He threw the switch on 30,000 computers at once." You could even say, "He threw the switch on the hopes and dreams of 30,000 families."

: : "Throw" seems to have a particular meaning in electrical land that has nothing to do with the action of throwing e.g.

: : "Several terms are used to describe switch contacts: ... Throw - number of conducting positions, single or double."

: : So you can have single pole, single throw switches and single pole double throw switches and so on.

: : I'm not sure whether this use of the word "throw" has anything to do with the physical action of "throwing a switch", and its percieved similarity to "throwing a ball".

: : Pamela

: I guess what I was trying to get at was that the "throwing" of a switch may have nothing to do with the physical action of operating the switch, but might refer to the action of electricity being "thrown" across a gap in the circuit. Outside of the movie Frankenstein, I don't commonly think of switches as needing a powerful physical action to move. "Flicking" or "tossing" a switch are far more descriptive than "throwing". Mind you, if the railway example ("tossing a switch" to mean operating the lever to move a train from one track to the other) was the origin of the electrical "throw" then I'm on the wrong track. (Haw haw). Pamela

It's Friday here and only 15 minutes to pub time, so time for a google search and a theory. The rail term "switch" seems to refer to the rail mechanism, and not the lever ("the points lever" - patented by Charles Fox in 1832) used to operate it. So, throwing a switch (the railway slang is apparently "bend the iron")
may refer to the action of the rails and not the action of the person operating the lever. Also, the "throw of a swich" is defined as: The distance, measured along the center line of the rod nearest the point connecting the two switch rails, through which switch points are moved sidewise to bring either point against the stock rail; standardized at 43/4 inches.

Is it possible that electrical engineers borrowed the terms "throw'(i.e. single or double throws) and "switch"(the thingamybob that causes the circuit to close) and used them metaphorically because of their conceptual similartity to what wa s happening on the railway? Maybe this became generalized to the action of "operating the points lever" when I turn on the lights? Pamela