Earliest control panel?

In modern technology we are completely accustomed to glancing at a set spot in our visual field to learn an item of information. The instrument panel on a car. The status bar on your phone. The various placements for information on a video game. I’m wondering when were the first control panels built? (Possible pressure gagues on a train?)

Would a sailing ship’s wheel and adjacent compass binnacle combo count? Third pic in the wikipedia article on binnacles conveys what I mean.

It represents one control device [wheel] and one instrument / data source [magnetic bearing], but all the other navigational data would be distantly visible or being shouted to the steersman.

Stationary steam engines came before traIns

The signal frame in a railroad signal cabin has lots of levers and block instruments, allowing the signalman to control the trains at a significant distance. One early example of a mechanically interlocked signal frame was at Kentish Town in London, in 1860.

In some ways the ‘control panel’ on a church organ is a similar concept, with examples going back to 1435.

Around 1-2 centuries B.C.E.

The antikythera mechanism count as a control panel ?

Wouldn’t a few levers next to each other on the wall count ? They might unlock or open hatches on the wall, for example.

The keys on a musical instrument count, as they are moving the control from the function.
as in, a xylophone doesn’t count because its not remote control , its directly hitting. So stringed instruments are generally not featuring a control panel.

The multiple outlets for sending water using pipes, for irrigation or bathing, like at the Mesopatamia , Romans etc. don’t count, as its not remote. And if it was remote but only controlled one pipe, it wasn’t a control panel, it was just a control.

3 to be a control panel ??

Maybe early steam trains were a bit ad hoc to count.
The Jacquar punch card creator may fit…

But then, why doesn’t the one-line–programmable loom, which would happily repeat the same line over and over again until its reprogrammed. That was achieved just by pulling on strings, the strings were controlled by little flick levers… the strings just moved the hooks inside the loom so as to control the pattern applied,so the lever and string really were there just to move the setting controls from inside to the top and outside

But apparently the Banu Musa brothers had produced a programmable musical instrument. in the 9th century. Only their book remains, but they say the designs work, suggesting that they had built them, not just DiVinci’d them.see Banū Mūsā - Wikipedia

The Romans had a early form of the taximeter that used a system of gears and balls to keep track of distance travelled.

Still, what have they ever done for us?

I was referring specificly to a panel with displays that showed the functioning status of something. So in devices where there is a lever that is in a different position while operating I would count, but not one where the lever returns to the same position after touched (piano key).

I wonder how far back military unit tokens on a table map goes.

If the status bar on a cellphone counts, why not this?

It has more than one control you can manipulate that affect other parts of the machine, and various dials you can read. How does it not count?

I don’t know, but those don’t fit the criteria for the question.

Here’s what I mean. With the example of my current phone:

If I look in the upper right hand corner, I know the battery status.

If I look at the top of the screen directly to the left of the battery status, I see the network status.

If I look in the upper left corner I know the current time.

If I look to the left of the current time I see notifications.

You all know them. You look to a certain part of the screen to see how many Pacmen you have left. You look to a certain part of your car dashboard to see how fast you are travelling, Thngs like that that are utterly nirmal for modern technological people but had to be a new concept once.

Nowhere near the earliest, obviously; but I think of the aircraft ‘six pack panel’.

1959 Skyhawk panel
Modern panel

The instruments are all there, but the modern panel has become the standard layout instead of the earlier ‘put it where it fits’ layout.

Power plants would be a reasonably early example. Here’s one from 1895, in the town I grew up–a control panel at the Folsom Powerhouse:

No question that’s a control panel. Not often you see electrical controls mounted to giant marble slabs.

We’re still blurring two things:

  • remote control - lever pull here results in effect over there

  • remote status - indicator here of a data point, eg battery capacity, engine temperature, readout, over there.

I’d suggest you’d want at least one of each for it to count as a control panel, so binnacle / ships wheel counts. Pre-compass tiller and just looking around at the weather and sky would not.

If its just representation of a current or desired state of things, then I would nominate cave art that influenced the outcomes of your mammoth hunts.

That definition sounds right to me. Does OP agree?

On that basis, I’m in two minds about the Antikythera mechanism. I’m not sure whether the input/output interface for a computer is quite the same thing as a control panel? I/O is the essential intrinsic purpose of the computer, so it doesn’t seem quite the same thing as “remote control” and “remote status”.

But it is an absolute example of what I’m thinking about. If you want to call it a “visual device status indicator zone”, mentally plug that in everywhere I wrote “control panel.”

Chemical manufacture started about 4000 BC with stuff like glass, bricks, …


I would hazard a guess that one of the first control panels showed up in one of those chemical plants.

Watching the color of a flame during (say during copper smelting ) and adjusting the air or fuel, counts as a control panel to me. Or a chemist watching the level of a reactant in a glass cup and adding stuff to maintain level counts as a control panel to me too.

Anyplace, where there is an observed parameter that is being controlled by humans by manipulating an input parameter, counts as a control action to me. If the observation is visual, then it’s a control panel : that’s what I am thinking.

Fine. Watching chemicals mix is a control panel. Drawings are control panels. Every damn thing in all the world is a control panel.


Johnny_L.A. And Dr.Strangelove, thanks for actually getting the question.

Controls in the engineering/science context is where there is an time varying output variable that is changed by manipulating an input variable.

Control Panel, hence, IMO is a panel enabling this work.

So watching chemicals mix in real time and adjusting flows/temps/etc will be a control panel.

Drawings have no real time element to them, so they won’t be control panels.

Steam turbines and gas turbines are a smaller part of a refinery control panel.

Okay, so the emphasis is on ‘panel’ as much as control. I withdraw my binnacle.