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jonno's avatar

Why are light switches upside-down in America?

Asked by jonno (1062points) January 7th, 2008

In the US, light switches are generally “up” when the light is on, and “down” when the light is off.

Compare this to the rest of the world, where “up” means off and “down” means on. I personally think this makes much more sense (though I’m biased having lived in Australia all my life – are there any Americans who think the same as me about this?).

How did this come about?

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7 Answers

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sndfreQ's avatar

I never thought about this-but remember in movies like Frankenstein and electric chair movies, where they ‘throw the switch’-they do throw the switch down to turn on the power!

Maybe it has to do with our water spiralling the ‘wrong way’ down the drain in the northern hemisphere…hmm

LanceVance's avatar

Well, I think it totally depends on how you want your light switches to be. For instance, we’d once been setting new ones up and after we’d finished I noticed their turned upside-down. It was confusing in the beginning but then you get used to it.

Anyway, switches for electrical water heaters are here in Europe usually turned upside down.

simone54's avatar

Don’t you mean, why does everyone but the United States use upside-down light switches?

scubydoo's avatar

Leave it to Americans to be different. :-)~ Imagine the houses that have switches on both sides of a room where both switches control a single light. craziness…lol

ccatron's avatar

@scubydoo I don’t think its that odd to have switches on both sides of a room. Let’s say you’re walking into a dark room that has tables, chairs, etc. Would you rather stumble through the room to get to the light switch…or turn it on as soon as you enter the room. This way no matter which way you enter the room, you can have light. Also, if you are headed in one direction through a room that has two entrances (or exits), why not turn off the light as you exit?

It’s all about prospective. It sounds crazy to me to think that people have switches that you have to flip down to turn on the lights! I think of “up” as a positive word. Stocks are up, keep your head up, or things are looking up. Turning on a light is a positive action as well. The room was dark, and now it has light. In the same sense, I associate “up” with “on” and “down” with “off”. “On” has a positive connotation and “off” is negative to me.

But, I think another reason is because the lights are in the ceiling, most of the time (excluding lamps and other lighted devices). Somebody a long time ago probably thought it made sense to have the switch pointing at the lights in the ceiling to signify that the light was on. As stupid as that sounds, I’m sure it has something to do with checking the circuits when installing wiring or lighting.

robmandu's avatar

kinda related… turns out that American three-prong outlets are usually “upside-down” as well. Had an electrician out to my house and we got to talking about it. The idea is that if one were to accidentally drop a penny, foil, or some other conductive material on to a three-prong plug that was in the socket, but not completely flush up against the wall, that a electrical connection would be made when the conductive material completed the circuit between the powered prongs.

The idea is to install outlets with the 3rd prong (that is, the ground) at the top and the two powered prongs underneath. Any conductive material falling down then would bounce harmlessly off the ground prong in that case.

Indeed, I was just recently at a hospital and all of the electrical outlets I saw there were ground-prong up. With pure oxygen in the air, they certainly cannot be too careful in preventing accidental sparkage.

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