Going up: 150 years of advances in elevators

Times Staff Writer

A donkey, an ancient Greek mathematician and a band of medieval monks all played a part in the invention of the modern elevator. But the stunt that made the contraption famous -- and forever altered city skylines -- took place in New York nearly 150 years ago.

A lanky mechanic named Elisha Otis -- wearing a top hat, an overcoat and a beard the size of Arkansas -- stood atop a crude wooden elevator as it dangled above a crowd at the Crystal Palace exposition hall in 1854. Suddenly, an ax-wielding man cut the rope that held the elevator. The spectators froze, expecting a deadly plunge, but the platform barely moved.

Otis had devised the first safety elevator, rigged with a braking mechanism that prevented falls. He dubbed it the “Patented Life and Labor Saving Hoisting Machinery.”


This week, the company that bears his name celebrated his first sale in April 1853. Along with a reenactment of the ax stunt, Otis officials trotted out a compendium of quirky elevator milestones:

The “vertical transportation industry” began in ancient Greece. In 236 BC, mathematician Archimedes built a hoisting device using ropes and pulleys. A few centuries later, Roman gladiators and lions rode primitive elevators to reach the floor of the Colosseum.

Donkey-powered lifts were the rage during the Middle Ages. The most famous was at the abbey of Mont St. Michel on the French coast. In 1743, King Louis XV installed a “flying chair” to connect his apartment at Versailles with the room of his mistress. By the early 1800s, steam-powered hoists began transporting miners to and from underground veins of ore.

However, safety remained a headache. If a rope snapped, gravity took over. Accidents and deaths were common.

In 1852, Otis figured out a solution while working for a New York bed-frame manufacturer that needed a way to move heavy equipment to the second floor of its plant. When the bed company went belly up the next year, he initially considered joining the Gold Rush in California. But after several orders trickled in for his $300 freight elevator, he decided to build lifts full time.

Although he didn’t live to see the effects, his invention sent skylines soaring. In 1889, the Eiffel Tower opened with Otis elevators gliding up and down its curved legs. Next came a spurt of skyscrapers, including New York’s Woolworth Building in 1913 and the Empire State Building in 1931. Otis elevators also float between floors in the Vatican, the White House, the Kennedy Space Center and the Kremlin.

Worldwide, elevators now move the equivalent of Earth’s population every 72 hours. The biggest manufacturers are Connecticut-based Otis and Switzerland’s Schindler, which took over Westinghouse’s elevator and escalator division in 1988.

Over the years, the machines have gotten increasingly sophisticated. “They’re not just a box on a string,” Otis President Ari Bousbib says. The Washington Monument’s new elevator car features walls that seem to dissolve on the trip down. An electrical charge in the glass changes it from opaque to clear.

Other innovations include elevators that can travel underwater or move sideways. The latter concept was introduced a few years ago but never caught on, Bousbib says.

Otis’ most expensive elevator is in the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride at Walt Disney-MGM Studios in Florida. The custom $8-million cage transports visitors through a haunted hotel, then makes a series of stomach-churning falls.

Non-theme-park elevators are a bargain by comparison, ranging from $40,000 for a 10-story model to $500,000 for a fully loaded skyscraper version.

Elevator scientists are continually looking for ways to improve their product. In Bristol, Conn., Otis operates a 29-story test tower where “ride-quality engineers” cruise up and down in prototype cars measuring vibration, noise and braking-speed smoothness.

The goal, says Bousbib, is to make the ride a “mindless experience.” However, comfort standards vary from culture to culture. In fast-paced New York, for example, elevator doors open and close twice as quickly as in Tokyo. And in Europe, lift cars are much smaller than their North American counterparts.

When Otis spokesman Dilip Rangnekar first encountered a four-person European elevator at the Bristol test tower, “I wondered how you could get even two people inside it,” he says. Otis’ Web site drives that point home with a photo of a freight elevator that was used as an office by a Czech company in the 1920s.

Elevators do have their downside. In addition to paving the way for elevator music, they occasionally get stuck between floors (actor Jack Lemmon was reportedly born in a stalled lift) or injure riders by plunging abruptly before safety brakes kick in. Bousbib insists such mishaps are rare and usually caused by improper maintenance.

Elevators are also a popular topic for humor. Elevator World magazine, the industry’s 50-year-old trade journal, maintains an archive of nearly 600 elevator-related cartoons on its Web site (www.elevator-world. com).

And an e-mail making the rounds jokes of “50 fun things to do on an elevator,” including: Offer name tags to everyone as they board; say “Ding!” at each floor; listen to the elevator walls with a stethoscope; enter the compartment with a cooler labeled “human head”; draw a small square on the floor with chalk and announce to fellow passengers that it’s your personal space; and, upon arriving at your floor, groan and strain to pull the doors apart, then act embarrassed when they open automatically.