History of Elevators Part 1

About the history of elevators and their inventors, varieties and safety features.


Few people realize it, but the most widely used form of mass transportation in the U.S. is the elevator.

The more than 340,000 elevators in the U.S. travel more than 1.5 billion mi. a year and make more than 500 billion trips. One elevator manufacturer boasts that its elevators alone carry the equivalent of the world's population every nine days.

The average trip takes less than a minute, but some have been known to last longer. A wealthy Chicago woman was trapped in her mansion's elevator for five days before someone found her. She was somewhat thinner, but alive and relatively healthy. And she got back at the elevator company by receiving an out-of-court settlement on a $100,000 legal suit.

On Long Island, a not-so-wealthy hospital employee was trapped in an elevator in a busy hospital for 22 hours before she was discovered. Her benevolent employer paid her overtime and gave her the next day off.

Getting trapped in an elevator is the exception rather than the rule, because in addition to being the most widely used form of mass transportation, elevators are also the safest.

The Roman architect Vitruvius first described elevatorlike lifts in the 1st century B.C., and there is reason to believe that his description came two centuries after the first "elevator."

But from Vitruvius to 1853, elevators were deemed unsafe for passengers. However, Elisha Graves Otis took care of that. He invented a spring safety device for his elevator which sprang into action if a cable broke and its tension slackened.

At the Crystal Palace Exposition in New York City in 1853, Otis rode his elevator above the heads of the spectators. Then he called for the cables to be cut. Everyone expected him to plunge to the ground, but the Otis elevator stood fast, and Otis said, "All safe, gentlemen."

His relatively simple safety mechanism changed the architecture of the modern world. Buildings began reaching for the sky. The first passenger elevator began operating at the Haughwout Department Store in New York City in 1857. It made the five-story trip in less than a minute, which was fine for that era, but at that speed it would take upwards to 20 minutes to reach the top of most skyscrapers.

In the early days, steam and water power were used to run elevators, but eventually electricity began to dominate the market. The smoothest elevators were the "direct plunger" elevators. A large plunger was built beneath the cab and fit into an underground cylinder. When the cylinder was filled with water, the elevator was pushed upward. When the water was let out, the long plunger moved down the cylinder and the elevator descended. It offered such a smooth ride that hundreds were installed around the country.

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