Occupants of the Swan station followed a protocol in which they typed a sequence into a computer every 108 minutes. Typing these numbers and pressing "execute" (a.k.a. pushing the button) on the keyboard discharged an electromagnetic buildup, continually averting worldwide catastrophe.
The survivors discovered the station in November 2004 and spent weeks debating the protocol's meaning and consequences before the station was destroyed.
Origins and purpose
The Swan was originally designed for experiments, but during construction, the DHARMA Initiative punctured the research site's electromagnetic pocket. A nuclear device also entered the pocket, further complicating matters. Following this incident, an electrical charge continuously accumulated at the Swan site. The Initiative designed the Swan protocol to discharge the amassed energy. An excessively large buildup could lead to a global catastrophe. The protocol had to run within a 4-minute period every 108 minutes -- a countdown timer tracked this time, and an alarm sounded during the 4-minute window. In case the protocol failed, the Initiative installed a fail-safe that would destroy and seal the leak with unknown consequences for whoever activated it.
DHARMA assigned personnel to the station in teams of two for a tour of duty lasting 540 days. It was recommended that they work in alternating shifts in pushing the button. Stuart Radzinsky, the station's designer, was running the protocol in the early 1990s, when Kelvin Inman joined him.
After the Island's natives eliminated the DHARMA Initiative, Radzinsky and Inman continued pushing the button. Radzinsky committed suicide, leaving Inman alone and awaiting a replacement until Desmond Hume landed on the Island in 2001. Kelvin introduced Desmond to the protocol, which he described as "saving the world." He didn't share further details about the Swan, including the Incident and the fail-safe key, until a drunken conversation years later.
Desmond killed Kelvin outside the station on September 22, 2004 and returned too late to push the button in a timely fashion. This triggered a system failure and released a massive magnetic surge that caused Flight 815 to break-up in mid-air and crash on the Island.
Though late, Desmond entered the sequence and reset the station's timer. He continued pushing the button for the next 40 days, though he at times thought that his failure had had disastrous consequences.
On November 5, the survivors entered the station. Desmond explained the Swan protocol after a confrontation with them and then fled thinking the computer had been permanently damaged. Sayid managed to repair the computer, and Locke and Jack had a stand-off over whether to push the button. Locke convinced Jack to take a "leap of faith" and push it, and they agreed to organize shifts with other survivors to continue doing so. That same day, a vision of Walt appeared to Shannon and spoke backwards "Don't push the button. Button bad".
Days later, Locke inadvertently let the timer reach zero. The station released a loud escalating sound as if something were powering up and the timer then flipped to a series of red and black hieroglyphics. Locke discovered it was still possible to enter the Numbers and, on pressing Execute, the counter reset, flipping back to 108. ("One of Them")
Later, it appears a similar event took place off-camera, while Locke was trapped underneath the blast door. Ben (then still known as Henry Gale) claimed that he did not press the button, but given the catastrophic consequences of not pressing the button, it seems very likely that he was lying. ("Lockdown")
Following the DHARMA protocol, the survivors made an effort to set up shifts of two people in the station to operate the computer - with Locke initially taking on more shifts than anyone else. Locke's faith in the station, however, began to fall apart after Ben's arrival - and Ben's description of the Swan as a "joke." This feeling intensified for Locke after he and Eko visited the Pearl - when he came to view the protocol as a meaningless psychological experiment. Mr. Eko, however, took over the duty of pressing the button. ("Dave") ("S.O.S.") ("?")
After Locke destroyed the computer's monitor, the timer once again expired without the button being pressed. Although Desmond activated the failsafe, the resulting "event" (termed the discharge) was felt across the entire island, and resulted in the destruction of the Swan station. An electromagnetic pulse from the discharge interrupted communication among the Others and also caused the failure of the satellite dish at the Flame. The discharge was also large enough to be detected at a distant tracking station. ("Live Together, Die Alone, Part 1")
Immediately after turning the failsafe key, Desmond's consciousness traveled back to 1996. He initially forgot his adventures on the Island, but he experienced flashes of memory of his time in the Swan. He spoke of the button when he ran into Charlie, and he later spoke about in in more detail to a friend. When he met Eloise Hawking, the two spoke extensively about the Swan, and she told him, "pushing that button is the only truly great thing that you will ever do."
The Man in Black, after assuming Locke's form and memories, compared the Heart of the Island to the Swan. "If there was a button down there to push, we could fight about whether or not to push it," he said. "It'd be just like old times." The unknown consequences of turning off the Light mirrored the unknown consequences of letting the Swan timer run down. (They proved disastrous; the Man in Black told Jack "Looks like you were wrong," echoing Locke's own statement of "I was wrong" during the final system failure.)
- In "Meet Kevin Johnson", when Michael is trying to blow up the freighter he pushes a button marked "execute" in order to detonate the bomb.
- In "The Lie", when Kate and Aaron enter the elevator, Aaron asks "Mommy, Mommy, can I push the button?"
- In "Happily Ever After", when Desmond is undergoing a MRI-scan in the flash-sideways timeline, the MRI tech tells him he needs a button. When Desmond doesn't understand he explains: "The panic button. You need to stop, press it. Try not to 'cause we'll have to start all over again from the beginning."
In Access: Granted, a special feature on the Lost: The Complete Third Season (DVD) Blu-ray edition, the reason for the numbers needing to be entered by humans and not by an automated process is explained:
- Damon Lindelof: I think the idea of sort of trusting the machine, what if the power goes out, or what if the station gets taken over by the hostiles? You know, it absolutely had to be manned by human beings.
The producers later clarified that the turning of the key by Desmond prevented a potential "global catastrophe." ("Lost: The Answers")
- 108 corresponds to the sum of the Numbers (4 + 8 + 15 + 16 + 23 + 42 = 108).
- A short story by Richard Matheson (later turned into a 1980s Twilight Zone episode) called "Button, Button" deals with a couple that is given the option of pushing a button or not—with a surprising ending.
- You can only push the button for 4 minutes, and as Desmond told Locke, it was to save the world. The Madonna song, "4 minutes", has a lyric that says, "We've got 4 minutes to save the world", which is oddly similar to the situation.
- Pressing the button bears some resemblance to an episode of the new Outer Limits called "Dead Man's Switch" which deals with a group of humans who are locked in underground bunkers. The humans must press a button to prevent aliens from taking over the Earth but would allow the earth to be destroyed if they were dead.
- The movie Sphere (based on the Michael Crichton novel of the same name) has a button that must be pushed every 12 hours. "Everything in the habitat is videoed, so every twelve hours we take the video storage out to the mini-sub and press the reset button. The idea is, if something happens to us and we don't reset it, the sub goes to the surface automatically, so if we're all dead, they at least have a partial record of what went wrong." There are also connections between the alien, time-traveling sphere in the story and Lost's Magic box.
- For fan theories about these unanswered questions, see: Pushing the button/Theories
- Why did the manifestation of Walt caution Shannon against pushing the button?
- Why did the protocol use a code instead of just the button?
- Countdown Timer
- Fan-made countdown timers
- Log printout
- The Numbers
- Swan computer
- System failure
- Swan Orientation Film