I have held on to this custom doorbell switch and re-installed it in various places for nearly a decade now. It was originally fabricated by engineer and artist Brian Matthews, aka Pirate Brian. You can see more of his work here.  It is a fantastic contraption and includes an interesting example of a mercury switch, a traditional type of tilt switch now somewhat harder to find owing to our improved understanding of the toxicity of mercury.

Here's an animated GIF of the switch in motion.

An animated GIF of the switch in motion. The glass container has been wrapped with tape where the metal clamps hold the container, to reduce the possibility of the glass cracking at either of those points.

Component of the Month: Switches

Though toxic, mercury has some unique attributes that make it intriguing for switch applications. Like all other metals, it is a conductor of electricity; unlike all other (pure) metals, it is a liquid at room temperature. In the image above, you can see the liquid mercury housed inside a sealed glass container, and copper ring terminals (background) on the ends of the switch wires, which are encased in ceramic insulators connected to the container’s two contacts.

The mercury tilt switch was salvaged from a heavy appliance, and modified into this lever-style door handle. The switch initiated a doorbell on the other end.

The mercury tilt switch was salvaged from a heavy appliance, and modified into this lever-style door handle. The switch initiated a doorbell on the other end.

The container has been attached to a pivot connected by chain to, and operated by, a lever-style handle, which in turn drives a mechanical doorbell. When the handle is released the switch springs back to open position, the mercury flows back to one side of the container, and the current is broken. Mercury tilt switches were used in clothes irons, for example, switching one way when tilted horizontally, and switching the other when placed upright.

Here's a view of the switch in tilt position, with the mercury spread across both contacts.

Here’s a view of the switch in tilt position, with the mercury spread across both contacts.

From liquid metal fountains to switches, mercury has been used in the past for both its aesthetic and functional qualities. Today we know it should be handled with great caution. Mercury switches can still be found in gas ranges, thermostats, gas water heaters and furnaces, and even older washing machines. Before disposing of expired appliances you should check to make sure they do not still contain mercury, and some districts and states even have laws outlining safe disposal procedures.

Nick Normal

I’m an artist & maker. A lifelong biblioholic, and advocate for all-things geekathon. Home is Long Island City, Queens, which I consider the greatest place on Earth. 5-year former Resident of Flux Factory, co-organizer for World Maker Faire (NYC), and blogger all over the net. Howdy!


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