History of Elevators Part 2

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


The problem with the direct plunger elevator was that the cylinder had to be drilled into the ground and had to be equal in length to the height to which the elevator might travel. In some cases the cylinders were drilled 300 ft. to provide the lift for 30-story buildings.

The oldest operating elevators in the U.S. are direct plunger elevators. They are located at 34 Gramercy Park, in New York City's earliest cooperative apartment house. The elevators were installed by Otis Elevator back in 1883 and still retain most of the original equipment first used in the nine-story building. A cable runs through the top of the cab and out the bottom and controls a valve in the basement that regulates the flow between the underground cylinder and a water tower at the top of the building.

The direct plunger elevators were the forerunners of hydraulic elevators, which use pressurized oil. They are used for short hauls or for heavy-duty work. In Germany, there is a hydraulic elevator used to lift and lower the bottom of a full-sized swimming pool in order to control the depth of water. The bottom is lifted for children's swimming classes and lowered to make a deeper pool for diving competitions.

Of course, electricity is used for the elevators that race to the top of today's skyscrapers. The fastest and longest ride in the U.S. is to the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago. The speeds reach about 1,800 ft. per minute, or about 20 mph. It takes less than a minute to reach the 103rd floor.

If you've ever ridden to the top of a skyscraper, you have an idea of what traveling at that speed is like. Now imagine what it must be like to ride in the winding cages of a 6,800-ft.-deep mine shaft in South Africa, where the trip has been made at an ear-popping, stomach-churning speed of 40.9 mph.

But no matter what type of elevator or its speed, the emphasis has always been on safety. Just how safe elevators can be was demonstrated in the most bizarre elevator accident of all time. The accident occurred at the Empire State Building, it involved an army bomber, and it ended with a passenger saying, "Thank God, the navy's here!"

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