THE Germans call it a Fahrstuhl and the Spanish an ascensor. To the British it is a lift and to the Americans an elevator. But whatever name you use, it is the apparatus that usually gives you a sinking feeling in a tall building.
But where would we be without elevators? Have you ever thought how different the world would be if we did not have them? Without elevators, skyscrapers would not be practical. And what about all the millions of people around the world who occupy high-rise buildings? How would they manage?
This brings to mind an English adage: “You never miss the water till the well runs dry.” The same is true of elevators. They are not really missed or appreciated until they break down and cease to function. That soon strikes home to the housewife who lives on the tenth floor and finds that she has forgotten some important item on her shopping list. As she climbs up the stairwell she suddenly discovers long-forgotten leg muscles!
But have you ever wondered where and when the first elevator was invented and used? Where would you say?
“All Safe, Gentlemen, All Safe!”
A wide demand for a device to raise and lower goods and people developed especially in the 19th century. As buildings got higher, people were less inclined to climb up steep stairs. Department stores began to flourish and a need arose for an apparatus that would take customers from one floor to another with a minimum of effort. Who was the first inventor to demonstrate a satisfactory passenger elevator system? He turned out to be an American from Vermont, named Elisha Graves Otis.
Strange as it may seem, Elisha Otis’ talent as a designer was discovered when he was working as a master mechanic in a bedstead factory in Albany, New York, U.S.A.! He invented various laborsaving devices and so was sent to Yonkers, New York, where his ability could be put to better use. There he designed and built the first elevator that incorporated an automatic safety mechanism in case of cable failure. By 1853 he had established his own business of manufacturing elevators. The following year Otis demonstrated this invention at an exhibition in New York.
The booklet Tell Me About Elevators describes the scene: “With the complete safety elevator installed in the main area of the Exhibition Hall, Otis had the hoist platform, with boxes, barrels, other freight . . . and himself . . . on it, pulled up to a height for all to see. Then he ordered the [supporting] rope cut. As the tension on the wagon spring safety mechanism was released, it straightened out to engage the ratchet bars, securely holding the hoist platform motionless. Following the gasps from the audience, there was loud applause, and Otis, top hat in hand on the platform, bowed proudly and said, ‘All safe, gentlemen, all safe!’” And thus the modern elevator was born.
Elevators Go Up in the World
The potential for the newfangled contraption was soon realized, and in 1857 the first passenger elevator was installed in a department store on the corner of Broadway and Broome Street in the city of New York. Steam driven, it climbed five floors in less than a minute. Back then, that was fast. In contrast, today the elevators in the world’s highest building, the Sears Tower in Chicago, shoot you up 1,353 feet (412 m) in less than a minute!
In the meantime, were elevators going up in Europe? With perhaps less emphasis on tall buildings, the Europeans were slower off the mark. It seems that the first modern-type elevator was not built there until 1867. But after that they made up for lost time. How? By building the first elevator for a skyscraper-type structure. What was it? The Eiffel Tower, completed in 1889—the most famous landmark in Paris, France.
How was that elevator system designed? Sigfried Giedion tells us in his book Space, Time and Architecture: “Four large, double-decked elevators ran from the ground to the first platform, a height equal to that of Notre Dame cathedral [223 ft; 68 m]; two more ran from the terrace to the second platform, a height equal to that of the dome of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome [435 ft; 133 m]; the rest of the ascent was made in two stages by means of a pair of hydraulic elevators operating on a sort of shuttle system. The total ascent to a height of a thousand feet took only seven minutes.” Elevators were beginning to go up in the world much faster.
A Long Drop but No Spillage
As the years rolled by, elevator design became more sophisticated and by 1913 air cushioning was in use. This was a safety device whereby the elevator, if it fell, would come to rest in a chamber of compressed air that acted as a cushion to the fall.
The inventor of the air-cushioning system, F. T. Ellithorpe, was so confident of his new system that he loaded an elevator car with 7,000 pounds (3,175 kg) of ballast and a glass of water. He sent the whole lot down out of control from the 45th floor, a drop of 600 feet (183 m). When the elevator came to rest, not a drop of liquid had been spilled!
Elevators Help Pay the Bill
In 1931 the Empire State Building became the world’s tallest skyscraper. It also temporarily became the world’s biggest white elephant since, due to the Depression, only 30 percent of the office space was occupied. What helped to keep the building viable? The elevators that took streams of sightseers to the observation deck. Five thousand tourists paid a dollar each the first day to take in the panoramic view from the top. And a dollar then was a tidy sum. Within the first month over 100,000 had taken the ride to the 86th-floor observation deck.
In recent decades elevators have been refined and speeded up. For example, in the RCA Building in New York City, the elevators zoom up the 70-story skyscraper at a velocity of 1,400 feet (427 m) per minute. In Chicago’s John Hancock Center, they even beat that—1,800 feet (549 m) a minute, or 20 miles (32 km) per hour!
The importance of fast elevator service is evident when you realize that over a quarter of a million people visit the Rockefeller Center skyscraper complex in New York City each day to shop, to work or for sight-seeing. Little wonder then that the 110-story twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City are served by a total of 250 elevators. Imagine having to climb to the top of those buildings!
So the next time you hear a voice calling “Going up!” remember Elisha Otis’ famous words: “All safe, gentlemen, all safe!” And be thankful you can use the elevator.
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Elisha Otis demonstrating the world’s first safety elevator
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Would there be skyscrapers without elevators?