William M. Guinther was a 23-year-old Air Force Lieutenant who, on March 12, 1950, found himself in a predicament. Shortly after taking off from Otis Air Force Base in Falmouth, Massachusetts, he noticed his engine was sputtering. Just a few minutes later, it completely died.
Guinther survived the incident due to his quick thinking. As the Pottstown Mercury newspaper reported the next day, “Guinther pushed the ‘panic button,’ was ejected, cockpit and all, from the plane, and parachuted down onto a cranberry bog. The plane crashed into the sea.”
Nowadays, if someone is said to push the panic button, we don’t take it literally. The person is overreacting; let their emotions run away with them, in short – panicking. For a while, though, Air Force pilots had a physical panic button that they could push as a last option in dangerous situations. Because of the sense of humor those pilots had, we still use the phrase to this day.
Lieutenant James L. Jackson compiled an oral history of the panic button in 1956. According to his report, the first planes to be outfitted with ‘panic buttons’ were B-17s and B-24s. Normally, bomber pilots would communicate to their crew through an intercom system. If that system was damaged, the plane’s backup system was a set of bells. When it rung a certain way, the bells meant to “Prepare to abandon” and another meant “jump.”
So, the original panic button was rung, rather than pushed.
When the US joined the Korean War in 1950, there were new planes in the force, and they had new panic button abilities. The F-84 Thunderjets had a button to eject the “tip tanks” if there was trouble during take-off or while flying. “Tip tanks” are extra fuel tanks on the ends of the wings. Some F-84 models had features that would spray extinguisher fluid on an engine on fire or ejector seats, like Guinther had. Nearly all planes had “feathering buttons” to reconfigure the propellers in the case of engine failure. All of these systems were known as ‘panic buttons.’
A group of young men in a stressful situation will make slang words for almost everything and so ‘panic button’ entered the lexicon as a way to mock each other and the wartime situation. H.D. Quigg, the wartime correspondent, wrote that it was a humorous expression to cover almost anything. Some soldiers serving in desk jobs even had labeled panic button on their desks.
Quigg, along with other correspondents, took this joking use of the phrase to show that the troops were in good spirits. As the enemy moved towards the American camps, “signs reading ‘panic button’ were shortly found on light switches throughout Seoul,” said an article from 1951.
“It’s always uttered in broad humor,” Quigg wrote in an article that same year, adding that its new status as a joke boded well for the troops’ position: “The days of panic are gone,” he wrote. “Experience and confidence have taken over.”
In the 1950s, Air Force slang guides were popular in the US as citizens were interested in what this relatively new branch of the military was doing. ‘Panic button’ was duly included in those guides giving it a wider audience outside of the Air Force, Atlas Obscura reported.
Quigg included a humorous interpretation of the phrase in his lexicon from 1951. The New York Times didn’t arrive on the scene until 1954 when it included the phrase in a sidebar called “Jet-Stream of Talk.” Over the next decade the phrase was used in the New York Times in articles about the television industry, the New York Yankees, and a teenager who wasn’t pleased when a sailor gave her an unwanted kiss.
Actual panic buttons still exist, as ways to contact the police or security companies. But, the phrase continues to exist as a reference to calming down and can be found in stock tips, sports articles, and political discourse. Remember to thank those Korean War pilots the next time you find you need to push your own panic button, and leave the ejection seats for the true emergencies.