There’s a funny-looking push button on desks that sat in the House Chamber from 1877 to 1913. Why would a Member of Congress need to ring a doorbell at his desk?
The story of the desk’s “doorbell” starts with America’s love of gadgets. In the heyday of the Industrial Revolution, there was little that couldn’t be improved by a slick new invention. And what needed improving was how Representatives summoned messengers on the Floor of the House. For generations, the common method was a loud handclap. Prints from the 1850s through the 1890s show Pages sitting on the rostrum steps or gathered at the front of the Chamber, scanning the room for the source of the call. In 1886 a correspondent noted that they were everywhere at once “now darting through the aisles under the very nose of a member who is making a great speech, now carrying great armfuls of books to one Congressman, and now taking a letter to post for another, or bringing a glass of water to the man who is speaking.”
By the end of the 1880s, however, the House was getting more crowded, and it was undoubtedly harder to get anyone’s attention in a chamber swarming with other congressmen. The number of Representatives had steadily risen from 237, the maximum intended for the House Chamber, to 356 in 1893, making for a jam-packed room. Some new Members making speeches mistook all the clapping to summon Pages for an ovation. The House was ripe for a newfangled invention that would bring a Page to a Member’s side without applause.
Just such an invention was available, straight from the U.S. Patent Office. In 1888 Miriam Benjamin became only the second African-American woman to receive a patent. Her invention, a “gong and signal chair,” was intended for restaurant patrons who wished to summon a waiter. At the push of a button/lever, a diner raised a small signal flag above the chair’s back, to beckon a waiter. Given the similar needs on the House Floor, it seemed a likely candidate. Benjamin was a schoolteacher in Washington, and she lobbied for adoption of her invention in the House. News reports often said that she was on the verge of having it installed in the Capitol.
Benjamin’s efforts were unsuccessful, and an even more complicated system was adopted in 1895. The House installed push buttons at each Member’s desk, in a discreet location “out of the way of accidental disturbance.” Annunciators were placed in the cloakrooms, on what amounted to a switchboard, so that the Pages, relocated from the rostrum steps, could see at a glance from which desk the call for assistance had come. The total cost of the push buttons and wiring came to $52.61, a bargain even then.
Sources: Report of the Architect of the Capitol, July 1, 1895; U.S. Patent No. 386,289