Imidazole, a subunit of histidine, plays a crucial role in proton-relay processes that are important for various biological activities, such as metal efflux, viral replication and photosynthesis. We show here how an imidazolyl ring incorporated into a rotary switch based on a hydrazone enables a switching cascade that involves proton relay between two different switches. The switching process starts with a single input, zinc(II), that initiates an E/Z isomerization in the hydrazone system through a coordination-coupled proton transfer. The resulting imidazolium ring is unusually acidic and, through proton relay, activates the E/Z isomerization of a non-coordinating pyridine-containing hydrazone switch. We hypothesize that the reduction in the acid dissociation constant of the imidazolium ring results from a combination of electrostatic and conformational effects, the study of which might help elucidate the proton-coupled electron-transfer mechanism in photosynthetic bacteria. © 2012 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.