Dec. 1, 2003
An original and still-working 1922 model of the electrical safety switch that helped save lives in American factories in the early 20th century was donated

An original and still-working 1922 model of the electrical safety switch that helped save lives in American factories in the early 20th century was donated in November to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., by Schneider Electric, Palatine, Ill.

The donation was made as the company commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Square D brand. The lifesaving steel-enclosed Square D safety switch replaced the standard open-knife switch common on factory floors in that era. The open-knife switches could easily electrocute machine workers who came into contact with exposed metal switch blades and live electrical current.

The Square D safety switch was the invention of electrical engineer Bryson Horton, who incorporated McBride Manufacturing Co. with James McCarthy in Detroit in 1903. The company's first products were cartridge-type electrical fuses, which two women assembled in an 18-by-40-foot rented room.

The cartridge fuse business produced rapid growth for McBride Manufacturing in its early years. It was renamed the Detroit Fuse and Manufacturing Co. in 1908.

In 1915, the company began marketing a new sheet metal version of its cast iron enclosed safety switch — with the cover displaying an embossed letter “D” (for Detroit) within a square border. The simple trademark design soon had customers asking for the “Square D” switch. In 1917 the fuse business was sold, and the firm officially changed its name to Square D Co.

The invention went a long way to answer the call of industrial reform efforts that demanded improved working conditions in the early 1900s. The significant potential for electrical hazards in the workplace prompted the company to promote its switch through an advertisement featuring a worker running from a factory floor proclaiming “Jones is Dead!” The industrial ad vividly engraved the Square D safety switch in the minds of company managers concerned about the shock hazard of exposed electrical switches.

The 1922 safety switch that was donated to the permanent collection of the Smithsonian had been in use at Mariani Square, a former fruit processing plant in San Jose, Calif. In presenting the product, Chris Richardson, CEO and president of the Schneider Electric North American Operating Division, said that the company's mission has remained true to its founders.

“Very few brands that have been around for 100 years can claim that they meet the same essential needs as when they began,” said Richardson, a 34-year veteran of the company. “Providing for the safe and efficient distribution and control of electricity will always be a primary focus of our business.”

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