Earliest control panel?

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.

Since I am having to be very specific, what I am asking about is an intentionally designed and manufactured visual interface with set areas of said interface designated for providing information about the state of some system or device. I may have been unclear by using the term “control panel” and that’s on me. But what I’m asking about is something like these examples:

(The very first one is going to be more similar to the Sopwith Camel example than the Enterprise D example.)

A mechanical clock?

Is that different in concept from the phone clock in your first image?

If you include the charge level on your phone, that doesn’t seem to be different from a medieval clock driven by a weight that needs to be wound up from time to time. You can see from where the weight is hanging how much ‘charge’ it has left.

This is probably just a more labored version of Banksiaman’s answer, but I think some factors implicit in DG’s conception of a control panel are that

–the information conveyed is gathered from a source, or multiple sources, that are A. distant or B. expressed visually in a way that is abstracted from their “real world” manifestation or C. both;


–inputs on the panel effectuate change at a distance from the location of the control panel

So watching a forge doesn’t count, a ship’s wheel and compass do count, and the antikythera mechanism doesn’t either (does not effect action at a distance).

Here’s the end of a boiler built in 1812:

There are two pressure gauges and two water level gauges. It’s not quite a dedicated panel, but it certainly looks like the sort of thing a person would stand near to monitor the state.

I’m not sure however that those are original equipment. The Bourdon tube gauge was the first compact, high pressure gauge (i.e., the common small circular gauges you see) and was invented in 1849. So it’s likely those are a retrofit, though maybe there was another type of gauge before. The water level gauges were probably always there, though.

Still sounds like the Antikythera Mechanism to me - look here, see the phase of the moon. Look there, see when the next Olympics are, look elsewhere, see the positions of the various planets. Also has controls so you can set things.

Clocks and other timekeeping devices probably should count as simple examples, though I was really thinking of displays that combined more than one indicator (pressure and water level on the boiler is a good example.)

For ships, I would definitely count an object that that included both a clock and compass. Don’t know how far back/if something like that was used, though–googling is finding recently made decorative versions that seem more steampunky than replicas of real tools.

The Antikythera Mechanism I’m waffling on–on the one hand I’m dubious about something where the output of the display is the whole purpose of the device. On the other, that pretty much describes a clock or compass, too. I mostly think of it as an outside context problem.

All of the OP’s examples are just readings, not affecting anything.

This is diverting somewhat from your OP, where it was about the idea of “glancing at a set spot in our visual field to learn an item of information”, which definition the mechanism very much meets. It has multiple dials, and they’re not telling us about the mechanism, rather about the thing the mechanism is modelling - would you say the instrument panel in a flight simulator is not a control panel, versus the one in a real plane?

As I understand it, the idea is now that the information must be about something outside the whole object in question? How does a phone battery indicator qualify, but something that tells us what the phase of the moon is, not?

It really isn’t.

You think this is frustrating? you should search for the pedantic train wreck when I asked what the largest ‘field’ was.

Good thing you didn’t ask for the earliest “sandwich.”

Seriously, this thread is an excellent example of two major empirical conundrums.

First, there’s the looseness of the mapping in the brain between words and things that confounds researchers into AI and robotics. A “control panel” may seem to be a exact fixed object but everyone seems to have a different definition. Same with “field,” “sandwich,” “chair,” and dozens of other words that have sparked furious argument over the years.

Second, the sheer perversity of Dopers providing the farthest-out, most-ludicrous-to-others examples of things, which are defended to the death no matter how many eyes are rolled out of their heads.

The one good thing is that threads like these give the best answer to the question of “what jobs can never be replaced by robots?” Obviously, it’s answering questions on the Dope.

Thag cut notches on spear, keep track how many kills. Small notch deer, big notch mammoth.

There’s your answer Darren. Question answered, thread over. :grinning:

I’d refine Banksiaman’s definition by saying a proper control panel must monitor at least 2 pieces of data, possibly in addition to having some sort of manipulation over the process. Though if I saw 2 gauges attached to a boiler, I’d say that qualifies even if the operator needs to insert coal with a shovel.

With that in mind if the Antikythera mechanism was in a temple and directed priests about the proper time to conduct certain rituals, it would be a control panel. But if it was a research device for Aristotle or a toy for a nobleman, I’d say no.

So Stonehenge (in addition to drawings and pottery) was clearly the first control panel, never mind that it’s not clear at all whether it was constructed with a meaningful astronomical purpose, and probably wasn’t monitoring anything. It certainly looks like a control panel.