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During the second season of Lost, the survivors discovered a computer inside the Swan station which required the Numbers to be entered into it every 108 minutes. A timer set into the wall provided a continual countdown - and an alarm would sound as the timer neared zero. Entering the Numbers sequentially and pressing Execute (aka pushing the button) on the keyboard would cause the timer to reset to 108 minutes and begin the countdown anew. What would happen if the button was not pushed was initially unclear.
Desmond described the process of entering the Numbers, as told to him by Kelvin Inman, as "saving the world" ("Orientation") ("Live Together, Die Alone"). Kelvin remarked in "Live Together, Die Alone" that a "charge" progressively “builds up” in or near the Swan, with an accompanying magnetic field. The procedure of "pushing the button" effectively discharges the amassed energies.
The protocol of pushing the button was set up after the Incident at the Swan site in 1977 when the DHARMA Initiative drilled into a pocket of electromagnetic energy on the Island. ("The Incident, Parts 1 & 2") Exactly why the protocol was set up requiring constant attention by personnel at the station is unclear. A failsafe was also installed as a backup system - capable of destroying the energy pocket at the expense of the station and potentially the personnel stationed therein.
According to the Swan Orientation Film, Dharma personnel were stationed in teams of two at the station for a tour of duty lasting 540 days. It was recommended that they work in alternating shifts in pushing the button. ("Orientation") At some point Kelvin Inman joined the DHARMA Initiative and was assigned to the Swan with his partner, Radzinsky. ("Live Together, Die Alone")
Kelvin and Radzinsky were the only two known survivors of the Purge who did not defect to join the Hostiles. The two of them continued following the station's protocol until Radzinsky's suicide which left Kelvin manning the station alone - until he was joined by Desmond who crashed on the Island during his solo race around the world.
Kelvin introduced Desmond to the prootol - which he described as "saving the world." One night years later, while drunk underneath the Swan's computer room, Kelvin revealed to Desmond the nature of the Incident, and the function of the fail-safe key, which he carried at all times but was never able to find the courage to use. Desmond had lived in the station for three years, until Kelvin's death. ("Live Together, Die Alone")
Desmond failed to enter the Numbers in a timely fashion on September 22, 2004, triggering a system failure. Although the sequence was entered just after the countdown expired, the resulting massive magnetic surge caused Flight 815 to break-up in mid-air and crash on the Island. ("Live Together, Die Alone") ("A Tale of Two Cities") Alone in the Swan, Desmond continued to man the station for the next 40 days, carrying on the duty of pushing the button all by himself until the survivors blew open the hatch. ("Orientation")
Jack and Locke were the first two survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 to learn of the station's protocol. Desmond, the lone caretaker of the station, disclosed the bare facts of the situation and pointed them to the orientation film. He fled the station after the computer became damaged in an accident, thinking it was destroyed. With Sayid's help, they managed to repair the computer - and Locke made a decision to take on Desmond's role pushing the button with the help of the other survivors. ("Orientation")
In "Man of Science, Man of Faith", a vision of Walt appeared to Shannon and spoke backwards "Don't push the button. Button bad". The meaning of this message is somewhat unclear as later it was revealed later that not pushing the button was catastrophic. ("Man of Science, Man of Faith") ("Live Together, Die Alone")
Days later, Locke inadvertantly allowed the timer to reach zero, at which time a loud sound was heard 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 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.") ("?")
The Season 2 finale revealed that the button serves as a discharge mechanism for an electromagnetic source within the sealed portion of The Swan. The incident, according to Kelvin, was a leak causing a "charge" to gradually built up over time. After 108 minutes, the increasing charge reached a point where the magnetic field began to have effects within the Swan itself. It was implied that if left unstopped, the magnetic field would continue to grow until it would destroy the world - or at least all life on Earth. ("Live Together, Die Alone") ("Flashes Before Your Eyes")
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 interupted 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 tracking station in Antarctica. ("Live Together, Die Alone")
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:
The producers later clarified that the turning of the key by Desmond prevented a potential "global catastrophe." ("Lost: The Answers")