The History of the Elevator

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Some of the things we use every day were invented in the distant past. Other things were invented quite recently. 

However, there is a category of inventions that have been known forever, but no one ever had any practical use for it until recently. 

Learn more about the elevator, and how it helped create the modern world, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

If you think about it, the elevator is a pretty simple device. Ever since we had ropes and pulleys, we had everything we needed to make elevators. 

It isn’t surprising that the first recorded example of something like an elevator was created by Archimedes who build a crude lifting device out of hemp rope. 

We know that throughout the ancient and medieval periods, there were many rope and pulley lifting devices. It wasn’t something that was uncommon. However, they were almost always used as cranes for construction.

They were mostly used to lift large stones, not people. 

There are several reasons why elevators never took off. 

First, there was little need to lift people up high. Most buildings prior to the 19th century weren’t that tall. While were some tall buildings like cathedrals, it was mostly a large enclosed space, and few people needed to go anywhere other than the ground floor. 

In ancient Rome, they had apartment buildings called Insulas. The very tallest might get five or six stories, and the rents were based on how high up they were. Unlike modern buildings where the penthouse might be the most expensive unit, back then the higher up you were, the cheaper the rent, because you had to walk up and down all the time. 

Even mines weren’t designed for elevators, because they weren’t dug with a vertical shaft. They just dug tunnels by hand and you walked into the tunnel.

The second problem was that of energy. If someone is going to be lifted up or down, something is going to have to provide the energy to do it. On a construction site, you might have a team of animals or people to provide that power, but it wasn’t something that was on demand. 

The final problem was safety. If you lift someone up by a rope, what happens if the rope breaks? You fall and you die or get seriously injured. They didn’t have cables back then. They only had fiber ropes that had a limited lifespan. 

Over the centuries there were other attempts at lifting people up and down with ropes

In Moorish Spain, the Muslims had built an elevator-like device to raise weapons

Leonardo da Vinci created a system, at least on paper. 

In the 18th century, King Louis XV of France created a flying chair to bring his mistress up to his room at the Palace of Versailles. 

However, these were mostly one-off, experimental projects which weren’t intended for widespread use. 

The 19th century saw a confluence of technologies and needs which lead to vertically moving things. 

The development of steam engines in the 18th century lead to a demand for coal, which required deeper mines, which necessitated lifting things up and down. 

Steam engines were a way to provide power to mechanical lift. 

In 1835 in England, a huge innovation in elevators was created with the development of the permanent counterweight. The counterweight lessened the amount of energy needed to lift things up and down. 

However, the big advance, and the thing which made elevators plausible as a means of transporting humans, was developed in 1852 by Elisha Otis. He developed the safety elevator. This was a system that would prevent an elevator car from falling if the rope was cut. He dubbed it an “Improvement in Hoisting Apparatus Elevator Brake”

He famously gave a demonstration at the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in New York in 1854. He was raised up on a platform that was suspended by a single rope. At his signal, the rope was cut by a man holding an ax. 

As the crowd gasped, the elevator fell a few inches and was then stopped by his safety mechanism. He then said “All safe ladies and gentlemen. All safe.”

If the name Otis rings a bell, that is because he started the Otis Elevator company which is the large elevator company in the world today. 

Believe it or not, the first building with an elevator shaft preceded the first elevator. 

The Cooper Union Foundation building in New York was built with an elevator shaft because the building’s owner, Peter Cooper, assumed that a safe elevator would be developed. The elevator shaft was round, however, because that was what he assumed the shape would be.

Elisha Otis eventually created a specially designed elevator just for the building and its special shaft. The building and its elevator shaft are still there today. 

Otis’s demonstration was a success as far as selling elevators went. Before his safety demonstration, he had only sold three elevators. 

After the demonstration, he sold seven with in the first year. Most of these two or three-story elevators for residential homes. 

The first commercial elevator which was open to the public was in 1857. It was installed in the E. V. Haughwout Building in New York. It was a steam-powered hydraulic elevator that went five stories.

It was installed for a department store that installed it as an attraction to draw customers. The elevator car was more of a room with couches where people could sit, and it was really slow. Many people were terrified to ride in it. 

The passenger elevator radically changed architecture. Prior to the elevator, there was a natural limit to how tall buildings could be built. Even if you could build a twenty-story building, for example, you couldn’t reasonably expect people to walk up and down twenty stories every day. 

The next big innovation in elevators was the electric motor. Steam worked, but steam engines were big, noisy, and not really efficient. 

Buildings grew taller as elevators became more popular and accepted. Doors that automatically close were invented in 1887, and in 1900 the first automated elevator was installed.

People, however, didn’t like to use automated elevators. For most of the first half of the 20th century, public and commercial buildings had elevator operators.  An elevator operator strike in New York in 1945, plus the addition of safety features such as an emergency stop button and an emergency phone, make automated elevators more acceptable by the public. 

I’m just old enough to remember the very last elevator operator in my hometown when I was younger. 

Elevator technology hasn’t stopped. As buildings grew taller, there has been a need to rethink how elevators worked. 

For an ultra-tall skyscraper, simply having a single elevator shaft that stopped at all 100 floors would be extremely inefficient. If you had to get to the 100th floor, it would take forever. Moreover, the more floors, the more elevators you need, and each elevator shaft takes up valuable floor space. 

One common technique in tall buildings is to have express elevators, just like you would have express lanes on a highway. Then you would transfer to a different elevator, just as you might transfer airplanes at a hub airport.

These new techniques have allowed buildings like the Burj Khalifa to reach 2,717 feet high. 

The current record for the fastest elevator in the world is located at the CTF Tower in Guangzhou, China. It can go from the ground floor to the 95th floor in 45 seconds. That is 20 meters per second or 65 feet per second. 

The longest elevator in a single shaft is located in South Africa. The AngloGold Ashanti’s Mponeng Gold Mine has a shaft which is 2,283 meter or  7,490 feet. That is 4.5x deeper than the Burj Khalifa is tall. 

The Umeda Hankyu Building in Osaka, Japan has an elevator car that can hold 80 people and has a capacity of 11,574 pounds.

There are all sorts of unusual elevators which have been custom installed in buildings. The Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas has a pyramid that has elevators inclined at a 39-degree angle. 

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis has a curved elevator that goes up the inside of the arch to the top, over 600 feet. 

The lobby of the Louvre has an elevator that has no car. It is just a hydraulic lift where people stand on the top of a piston. 

Today, elevators are one of the safest modes of transportation in the world. They are safer than stairs because falling down a flight of stairs causes far more injuries than an elevator.

In fact, you almost never hear about elevator disaster. At worst, it just stops and someone might get stuck.

So the next time you press a button in an elevator, say a quick thanks to Elisah Otis, the man who made a two thousand-year-old invention practical for the modern world.