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History of the Elevator

home elevator ad from 1936

Elevators seem like a recent invention. But you may be surprised to find out that humans have been seeking ways to lift items and people more easily and faster for thousands of years.

Ancient Elevators

According to the writings of Greek architect and engineer, Vitruvius, the Greek mathematician, Archimedes, from the Greek colony of Sicily known as Syracusa, produced a primitive elevator in 236 B.C. for moving heavy goods vertically. This was just of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Archimedes’ discoveries and inventions, many of which set the foundation for whole disciplines such as fluid mechanics. His ingenious problem-solving lifting device used ropes that wound around a drum as men walked in circles to rotate a capstan around.

300 years later, Rome’s Colosseum had an expansive subterranean complex of tunnels, animal pens, and rooms beneath it. The strength of hundreds of men powered devices using winches and counterweights to raise and lower gladiators and large animals into the arena.

First Passenger Elevator Was a Home Elevator

For centuries, rudimentary versions of lifting devices powered by muscles focused on moving animals and materials. But in 1743, France’s King Louis XV commissioned a “flying chair” though it looked more like a suspended cabinet. It enabled his royal mistress who lived above his Palace of Versailles quarters to come and go secretly.

The king’s favored machinist, Blaise-Henri Arnoult, modified a design originally created by Count de Villayer from an ancient Roman design to produce the first known elevator designed specifically for passengers.

During its first months, the elevator was used by Madame de Châteauroux and upon her death a short while later, the influential Madame de Pompadour.

The lift was operated by the occupant inside the cabin by pulling a counter-weighted cord through a pulley system. It was moved to Fontainebleau in 1754.

sketch of pulley system for louis xv's flying chair in the palace of versaille
sketch of the cabinet or car for louis xv's flying chair in the palace of versaille

Prior to commissioning the “flying chair”, the French king had a “flying table” in his Château de Choisy that enabled a table full of tableware and food to be hoisted from the kitchen up into the dining room. Working with his favorite machinist, Arnoult, he would later install them in other chateaus along with other inventions that changed the way royalty lived and entertained. The table enabled he and his guests to dine in complete privacy without interruption or prying eyes and ears of the servants. When a bell was rung, the prepared table would rise from the kitchen a floor below with a meal, well, fit for a king.

Hoists for the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution (1760-1840) rapidly spiked demand to move greater and greater volumes of raw materials such as coal and lumber. Using animal and human power to drive hoisting at this scale was not feasible. James Watt’s invention of the steam engine in 1765 made meeting this demand practical. During this same period steel beam construction and the move from agricultural to city living resulted in soaring demand for the the development of high-rise buildings which required elevators to reach the higher floors.

Textile mills became the drivers of innovation always investing in labor saving technology. Steam-driven devices that sped up and replaced human tasks such as spinning thread and weaving cloth were rapidly adopted. In 1803, William Strutt, a Derbyshire, England, mill owner, devised what he first referred to as a crane, but later called a teagle. The steam-powered, belt-driven teagle moved workers and material between floors speeding production and increasing safety. The teagle used a counterweight system that raised and lowered a “cradle” in a shaft.

illustration of a teagle which is an early modern elevator
illustration of the ascending room in the London Colosseum

In 1827, Thomas Hornor, an English surveyor, artist, and inventor combined his talents to leverage some panoramic drawings of London that had failed to sell. He had made them from a vantage point few had ever seen atop the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral while a temporary shelter was in place during the project to replace the cross and ball in 1821–2. He schemed the London Colosseum built in Regent’s Park on the northwest side of London. It was an immense building designed by architect, Decimus Burton, to resemble the Pantheon within which his London panorama was painted inside the dome. The painting of the panorama was a technological and artistic miracle.

He employed a crude powered elevator to create a self-proclaimed “ascending room” that lifted paying tourists to a platform where they could view his London panorama. It was so costly that the investor fled to the US followed by Hornor. It was demolished in 1875.

In 1846, Sir William Armstrong brought the power of the hydraulic crane to modernize factories and mines with hydraulic elevators. The oil- or water-pressure hydraulics were safer than the steam-driven, cable design but their use was not as prolific since a deep pit was required to install it. As building height increased, so did the depth of the pit. So, cable elevators remained the most popular. But their cables were actually hemp ropes that were easily worn out and would unexpectedly snap allowing the car to fall. So these elevator versions were not usually used for transporting people.

First Elevators in the US

Use of elevators in the United States emerged in the mid-19th century. Like across the Atlantic, the focus was much on use in mills. Henry Waterman in New York City manufactured a lift for the Croton Flour Mill on Cherry Street owned by George V. Hecker and Bros. The 1848 New York Tribune featured a written description and diagrams of the elevator’s design though it may have been built as early as the mid-1840s. The Waterman design had a windlass at the top of the shaft. When turned, the rope either accumulated on the windlass drum raising the platform or was released from the drum lowering the platform depending on the direction it was turned. Waterman’s version of the elevator resulted in him being credited with inventing the “standing rope control.” Other innovative features of this design was a lever inside the car that enabled the operator to engage a fixed chain running the length of the shaft that served as a braking system. Also, it was one of the first to incorporate a roof in the design which was necessary because of the open shaft.

George H. Fox and Company of Boston designed a power hoisting machine  similar to Waterman’s and the teagle. The Fox design used a worm gear, similar to a screw, to transfer power to the hoist. The advantage of the worm gear is that it did not require a brake as friction between the worm gear and the spur gear it turned effectively prevented movement of the car when power failed. But the same friction resulted in inefficient and expensive power consumption. Another invention attributed to Fox is wire rope to replace the easily frayed hemp rope.

First Commercial Passenger Elevator

But in 1852, Elisha Graves Otis invented a system of spring-operated pawls on the elevator car suspended the car in place. The elevator was priced at $300 (about $10,000 today). It rose 40 feet per second.

illustration of a pawl and the toothed cog it held to prevent elevators from free-falling

As with most paradigm-shifting inventions, there were few early adopters. Otis sold a mere three elevators in 1853. So he decided to present a dramatic demonstration at the New York Crystal Palace, a grand exhibition hall recently built for the 1853 Worlds Fair.

Otis stood atop a hoisting platform high above the New York crowd gathered at the Crystal Palace in P.T. Barnum style. And, in fact, the event was widely promoted by Barnum. The crowd gasped as he cut the single rope suspending the platform with dramatic flair. The platform lurched downward a mere few inches then stopped. “All safe, gentlemen!” the man trumpeted.

The innovative safety brake saved Otis, the man, and Otis, the elevator business. He sold seven elevators that year, and 15 the next.

elisha otis gives a dramatic demonstration of his safety elevator at the 1854 World's Fair to demonstrate its safety for passengers

Otis Tufts (a different Otis) is renowned for improvements in printing machines, firefighting equipment, and the steam pile driver, but he also hastened the focus on passenger elevators. In early modern elevator history, the Industrial Revolution drove many elevator inventors to design for factories and moving materials. But Tufts was probably the first to envision how pervasive passenger elevators would become. He received a patent in 1859 for his design with an enclosed cab with benches and automatic doors that eliminated the rope and pulley system opting for a giant screw which ran the length of the shaft and was threaded through a channel in the car. His imperative for the safety of passengers resulted in a design that was too expensive and impractical. But he continued receiving patents in the early 1860’s for safety-focused elevator designs that featured multiple cables, improved guide rails, and roller guides which are all features on modern elevators.

In the mid-1870s, J.W. Meaker began seeking to continue the effort to overcome public skepticism and safety concerns for elevators. By 1887, he had patented a design for automatic, counter-balanced elevator doors.

In the late 1870’s, hydraulic elevators began again to be favored due to improvements. Leon Edoux of France had demonstrated his “secure hydraulic elevator” at the Paris Exposition in 1867 to feature its speed and stopping accuracy. Sir William Armstrong of England developed an “accumulator” that built pressure to solve the problem of low water levels.

German inventor, Werner von Siemens designed the first electric elevator in 1880. Anton Freissler, who had first been inspired by Edoux at the Paris Exposition, built and further developed Siemens’ model. While Siemens interests lay primarily in developing electric locomotives, Freissler’s dedication was to the elevator field, and he introduced his own prototype in 1883 at the Vienna Exposition. Electric elevators proved to be fast and practical since there were no height limits and electrical power was readily available in most cities by that time. The first U.S. patent for an electric elevator was awarded to Alexander Miles in 1887 (more on him later).

Otis Elevators Dominates Early Elevator Adoption

On March 23, 1857 the first Otis commercial passenger elevator was installed in the 5-story E.V. Haughwout and Company department store at 488 Broadway at Broome Street.

By 1873 there were 2,000 Otis elevators in use. They expanded to Europe and Russia. And rapidly earned the commissions for elevators in the world’s tallest and most famous buildings.

sketch of the otis elevator car, shaft, and machine of the first commercial passenger elevator installed in the 5-story haughwout store in nyc

Otis elevators improved the desirability of upper-floor real estate in the Big Apple and beyond. The freefall-preventing invention along with steel-frame construction changed the world’s city skylines forever flipping the most valuable real estate from the first floor to the penthouses of skyscrapers.

During the American Civil War demand for elevators surged for moving war materials.

But even though Otis’ early elevators were advanced technology, they were not automated as we think of them today. Operation of the lifts required skill and experience to expertly slide a lever that raised, lowered, and stopped the lift. In fact, elevators created tens of thousands of jobs for the most oppressed of United States citizens. Most elevator operators were black.

Elevator Advances at the Turn of the 20th Century

  • 1867 – Alexander Miles designed an electric elevator with automated elevator and shaft doors that opened and closed without manual operation. This significantly reduced dangers associated with elevator usage and the influence of his patent is seen in modern elevators. The patent was the first in the US awarded for an electric elevator. It should be pointed out that Mr. Miles was African-American so his ability to transcend the racial barriers in existence heightens how exceptional this addition to passenger elevators is.
  • 1889 – Otis installed the first successful electric elevator model in the Demarest Building in NYC.
  • 1892 – Otis equipped elevators with Unit Multi-Voltage for a smooth ride.
  • 1894 – Otis invented the automatic elevator and installed it in the home of Mrs. E. I. Shepard. This was the first operator-less elevator with push buttons and one of the earliest home elevators.
  • 1925 – Otis introduced the first fully automatic elevator model with automatic doors called the Collective Control, which completely eliminated the need for operators. However, much like society is today about driverless cars, the public were not quickly accepting of operatorless elevators.
  • 1931 – Otis installed the world’s first double-deck elevator in the Empire State Building.

Operatorless Elevators

As mentioned above, though the technology for user-operated elevators was available and being installed in the 1920s, it took the public a while to accept the change. Many would enter an elevator, then leave when they found no operator.

Read NPR’s account of how a costly NYC elevator operator strike and ingenuity of using advertising featuring kids and grandma using the elevator buttons, instructional calming voice over in-elevator speakers, and reassuring red “stop” buttons to gently persuade the public to accept the new-fangled transportation.

Early Home Elevators

Otis installed the first automatic home elevators for wealthy families. One had to be wealthy to afford to have the pulley system with cables and full car built as well as modify the home’s structure to accommodate it.

In addition to the 1894 installation mentioned before as the oldest home elevator, 2 elevators of Asheville’s historic Biltmore House were installed 1895 by the Otis Elevator Company. They still operate today for visitors with disabilities wishing to visit the 2nd floor of the palatial home. The Biltmore elevators are the oldest operating elevators in the southeastern states.

A November 1936 ad in Country Life featuring Mary Margaret Myers Yeager’s Otis elevator in her house at 48 South Franklin Street, Wilkes-Barre, PA.

An affluent and influential couple, Mary Margaret was married to John Beisecker Yeager. The reredos at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Wilkes-Barre is dedicated to them. Mary Margaret was the daughter of Lawrence Myers who owned the first stockbroker license in Wilkes-Barre.

Twenty-five years ago, home elevators became more popular, when technologies simplified and became cost-effective. People realized they provided exceptional transportation and mobility advantages and increased the value of their homes.

Exceptional Elevators

  • Jio World Centre (2020) – the world’s largest elevator car is 277 square feet which is as large as a 16’x16′ bedroom. It travels to 5 stops inside Mumbai, India’s Jio World Centre. The elevator car is decorated with opulent finishes that match the incredible center that features iconic flagship stores, rooftop drive-in theater, and outdoor weekend market as well as convention facilities. Jump to 00:53 in the video to see the elevator in action.
  • Mponeng Gold Mine (1986) – the world’s tallest elevator is 4.5 times taller than the tallest elevator in a building. 4000 workers each day in this South African mine require a mere 3 minutes to descend the 7,450 feet (almost 1.5 miles) in 3-level cages 120 workers at a time. Even more intriguing is that there is a second elevator at the bottom that takes miners even lower to the deepest point on planet Earth at a total of more than 12,600 feet and getting deeper every day. See video at right, you might want to jump to minute 3:54.
  • Bailong Elevator (2002)  – The world’s tallest outdoor elevator rising 1,070 feet to afford visitors to the Wulingyuan Scenic Area, a World Natural Heritage site, unmatched panoramic views of surrounding mountains. The Bailong lift is also the world’s heaviest and most expensive elevator.
  • Taipei 101 (2003) – the fastest elevator in the world zips to the panoramic observation deck of the Taiwanese business, arts, and tourist venue at an incredible 37.7 miles per hour.
  • Potbelly Sandwich Shop Elevator (1870s) – this is believed to be the oldest passenger elevator still in existence. Though inoperable, the Washington, DC, elevator is owned by the Smithsonian and is a National Historic Landmark preserving it from being destroyed. It is believe it was installed in the 1870s or 1880s by Bates Hoist Machines of Baltimore.
  • City Hall Elevator of New Bedford, MA (1906) – the oldest elevator has been continuously operating since it was installed in the small New England city. Sadly, it faces exorbitant repair costs and has caused inconvenience and once a building evacuation so its continued use is in question.
  • First Elevator Shaft (1853) – Predating the first passenger elevator installation, the first elevator shaft was constructed in the The first elevator shaft was put in a building before Elisha Otis designed his safe, steam powered elevator. This was done in 1853 at the Cooper Union Foundation building, now a landmark in lower Manhattan. When constructed, it quickly became a popular gathering spot for inventors, philosophers, and tinkerers from all walks of life. During its erection, Peter Cooper had the foresight to include a cylindrical shaft to accommodate a future elevator as he felt confident that the devices would be made safe for human transport in the near future. It took a couple decades, but Otis’ complany did install an elevator there.

An Elevator in Your Home

From the most rudimentary rope and pulley systems of ancient civilizations to today’s self-optimizing banks of skyscraping elevators to daring engineering feats entering miles into the earth, elevator technology continues to develop in many arenas. Here at Home Elevator of Houston, we stay on top of the latest elevator technologies for your home to ensure your family and guests are offered safety, convenience, and freedom to roam all levels of your home.

We look forward to an invitation to your home to provide you with a free, no-obligation quote as well as answer all your questions about how a MRL home elevator will fit in your home and serve your mobility needs today and in the future. Call (713) 360 7353.

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