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Elisha Graves Otis

Elisha Graves Otis

The American manufacturer and inventor Elisha Graves Otis (1811-1861) was one of the inventors of the modern elevator and founded a company for their manufacture.

Elisha Otis was born near Halifax, Vt., where his father was for many years a justice of the peace and a state legislator. He received a common education in his hometown and at the age of 19 moved to Troy, N.Y., where he went into the construction trade. Poor health caused him to turn to hauling goods between Troy and Brattleboro, Vt. In a pattern that he was to repeat several times in his life, he saved enough money to start his own operation, in this case a small gristmill.

About 1845 Otis was again forced by ill health to change jobs. He moved to Albany, N.Y., where he became a master mechanic in a bedstead factory. Eventually he opened a small machine shop in that city. Again he was forced to give it up and became a master mechanic in a factory in Bergen, N.J. His son, Charles, then just 15 years old, was so proficient at machine work that he was made an engineer with the same firm.

In 1852 the firm sent Otis to Yonkers, N.Y., to supervise the installation of machinery in a new factory, and there he made some improvements in the elevator with which he was working. He showed the improvements in New York and applied for a patent on the device. The elevator consisted of a platform which was raised by a rope between two vertical posts. On the inside of each post was a rack designed to catch two pawls set in the platform frame when the lifting stopped. In 1854 it was reported that "the pawls are prevented from bearing against the racks during the upwards movement of the frame, and much friction is obviated thereby, and if the rope should break, or be loosened from the driving shaft, or disconnected from the motive power accidentally, the platform will be sustained, and no injury or accident can possibly occur, as the weight is prevented from falling."

Scientific American called the device "excellent" and said that it was "much admired" in New York. Receiving several orders for elevators, Otis again set up his own shop and with the aid of his son began their manufacture. He continued to invent and patent other devices, but his elevator business grew only slowly and was still rather small when he died, a comparatively young man. His son carried on the firm. With the growth of cities and the introduction of the apartment house and the skyscraper in the years after the Civil War, Otis elevators came to lead the field.

Further Reading

There is no adequate biography of Otis. The importance of his work for the growth of American cities is examined in Carl W. Condit, American Building Art: The Nineteenth Century (1960). See also Leroy A. Peterson, Elisah Graves Otis, 1811-1861, and His Influence upon Vertical Transportation (1945). □

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Otis, Elisha Graves

Elisha Graves Otis, 1811–61, American inventor, b. Halifax, Vt. From his invention (1852) of an automatic safety device to prevent the fall of hoisting machinery he developed the first passenger elevator (1857). The invention of the elevator was of great importance to architecture because it permitted the building of skyscrapers.

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Elisha Graves Otis

Elisha Graves Otis

1811-1861

Designer of the safety hoist elevators. Born in Halifax, Vermont, in 1811, Elisha Graves Otis was a hard-working New Englander with exceptional talents in improving old machines and inventing new ones. Working as a master mechanic in 1852 for a company in Bergen, New Jersey, he was sent to Yonkers, New York, to operate a new factory and install its machinery. It was there that he designed and installed a safety hoist, the first elevator with backup devices to keep it from falling in case the lifting chains or ropes failed to support the weight of the hoist. On March 23, 1857, the first passenger elevator in history was installed in a New York store. Otis died in 1861 but the company he founded is still in business.

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Otis, Elisha Graves

Otis, Elisha Graves

(1811-1861)
Otis Elevator Co.

Overview

Elisha Graves Otis designed and built the first hoisting device that proved safe enough to carry people. A self-trained mechanic and constant tinker, he founded the company that still bears his name in 1853. His invention of the elevator has been called one of the most important breakthroughs of the nineteenth century, for it made possible the development of the skyscraper.

Personal Life

The family of Elisha Graves Otis had roots in New England that stretched back to the seventeenth century. Elisha, the son of Stephen and Phoebe Otis was born on the prosperous family farm near Halifax, Vermont, on August 3, 1811. In addition to being a farmer, the senior Otis was a local justice of the peace and a member of the Vermont state assembly. Young Elisha attended public schools in Halifax, and at the age of 19 he moved to Troy, New York and took up carpentry as a profession. However, he was forced to abandon this line of work after just a few years due to bouts of poor health that weakened his stamina for heavy physical labor.

Other setbacks would trouble Otis during his adult life. His first wife, Susan A. Houghton, died eight years after their 1834 marriage, leaving him with two young sons. In 1845 he married Elizabeth Boyd. A lifetime of chronic health problems ended Otis' own life at the age of only 50, when he passed away from diphtheria and nervous depression during the spring of 1861.

Career Details

After Otis was forced to give up carpentry, he established a freight hauling business between Troy and Brattleboro, Vermont. It was successful enough that he was able to set aside a little money, which he then used to buy some land on the Green River near Brattleboro. There Otis set up a gristmill powered by the river and built a home for his family nearby. But the grain-grinding operation was unprofitable, so he converted it into a sawmill. In 1845, illness once again forced Otis to find a different line of work. Later that same year, he relocated his family to Albany, New York.

In Albany, Otis found work as a master mechanic in a bedstead factory, where heavy wooden frames for mattresses were made. But he still loved to tinker with and build things, so he opened a small machine shop of his own powered by water from nearby Patroon's Creek. It was there that he perfected the first of his many inventions, a turbine water-wheel. He also created an automatic lathe, a device that spun an object on a horizontal axis so that it could be cut or shaped uniformly.

In 1851 government officials in Albany opted to exercise their rights over Patroon's Creek for the city's water supply. Otis had no choice but to close his shop. But someone he had known at the bedstead factory established a similar facility in Bergen, New Jersey and invited Otis to take the master mechanic position there. He accepted the offer, then relocated again a year later to oversee construction of his employer's new factory in Yonkers, New York. By this time, Otis' oldest son, Charles, was in his teens and already a skilled machinist; at the age of 15, he was employed full-time at the same company as his father.

One of Elisha Otis' major challenges at the Yonkers construction site was to find a way to hoist machinery safely to the new building's upper floors. Hoisting devices were by no means unheard of (the concept was, in fact, thousands of years old), but they had always been troubled by one fatal flaw—if the rope or cable snapped, the load came crashing down, destroying the goods and sometimes even killing workers.

Otis experimented with a few ideas and devised a new hoist with a safety catch that kept the platform from plummeting in the event of a cable break. "A model of engineering simplicity, the safety device consisted of a used wagon spring that was attached to both the top of the hoist platform and the overhead lifting cable," wrote Joseph J. Fucini and Suzy Fucini in Entrepreneurs: The Men and Women Behind Famous Brand Names and How They Made It. "Under ordinary circumstances, the spring was kept in place by the pull of the platform's weight on the lifting cable. If the cable broke, however, this pressure was suddenly released, causing the big spring to snap open in a jawlike motion. When this occurred, both ends of the spring would engage the saw-toothed ratchet-bar beams that Otis had installed on either side of the elevator shaft, thereby bringing the falling hoist platform to a complete stop."

Otis used his new hoist only at the Yonkers plant, not realizing its potential. At the time, though, his mind was on other matters, because he was making plans to head for California to mine for gold. His plans were postponed when he met a man named Benjamin Newhouse, a partner in the Yonkers Bedstead Company and the owner of a furniture company. Newhouse persuaded Otis to design and build an elevator for his factory, which had recently experienced a distressing hoist accident. Otis did so, and soon he began receiving inquiries from other people who were interested in his newfangled invention. Before long, he had abandoned his plans to become a gold miner. In September of 1853, he established the E.G. Otis Company in Yonkers for the purpose of building and selling lifting devices for use in factories.

Otis' new venture got off to a slow start. As orders trickled in he envisioned another use for his hoist that carried far greater potential—carrying people. Common wisdom at the time held that this was an extremely dangerous proposition; not too many people were willing to leave their personal safety in the hands of technology. To convince would-be buyers that his elevator was safe for passengers, Otis arranged a demonstration at the 1854 American Institute Fair held in New York City's Crystal Palace. In full view of the assembled crowd, he stood on the hoisting platform and rode upward several feet, then had an assistant cut the cable with an ax. Onlookers gasped as the platform upon which he was standing shifted a bit before miraculously pausing in midair. Wearing a top hat that gave him an air of "unassailable dignity," according to Donald Dale Jackson in the Smithsonian, Otis made "what was probably his first and last excursion into showmanship" on that momentous day. Bowing to the crowd and doffing his hat, he said, "All safe, gentlemen, all safe."

The exciting demonstration captured a great deal of attention in the press and immediately prompted several orders. Even then, Otis sold only 15 elevators in 1855 and 27 in 1856. Finally, in 1857 his company made history when it installed the world's first passenger elevator in the E.V. Haughwout store at the intersection of Broadway and Broome in New York City. (It was still in use as late as 1984.) In 1861, the company logged another "first" when it sought a patent for an elevator Otis had developed that was powered by a small steam engine. This invention was especially significant because at the time, only factories and warehouses had their own power sources, usually water or steam. By creating an elevator that included its own little steam engine, Otis opened up the market for his product to a much larger group of customers, including stores, hotels, and office buildings that were not necessarily located near a natural power source. Other patents he held were for a braking device for railroad cars (1852) and a baking oven (1858).

Despite these accomplishments, sluggish sales of his invention left Otis discouraged. By the late 1850s, however, his sons were in partnership with him, and they had a fairly good idea why the company was not doing well—their father had a knack for engineering but no head for business. Charles Otis kept a journal, and in one entry dated 1858 he noted that earnings were on the rise but that "Father will manage in such a way to lose it all." Indeed, when Elisha Otis died in 1861 at the age of only 50, he left behind debts of $8,200 and an estate worth only $5,000.

Social and Economic Impact

It is not an exaggeration to say that without the elevator, the skyscraper would not exist. During Otis' lifetime, buildings usually were no higher than four stories, since people did not like to climb more than four flights of stairs. "Combined with the development of metal building skeletons, the elevator made possible the soaring, dramatic skylines that have come to exemplify the twentieth century," observed Jackson. The elevator was also a boon to the flourishing retail industry in the United States that catered to a growing urban population. In increasingly crowded cities, the elevator meant that department stores could build "up" and increase floor space without taking on additional land costs or higher rent payments.

After Otis' death, his sons Charles and Norton ran the elevator company and implemented practices that launched a long and extremely successful era. Both men were tinkers like their father, and they kept improving on his invention. For instance, the first buildings to be designed with elevators were no higher than 10 floors because the winding drum for the lifting cable could only hold a certain amount of cable. To solve this, the brothers devised a hydraulic (water-powered) elevator in the 1870s that tapped into a city's water supply to obtain the proper pressure. The cables and motion of the elevator were driven by a piston that replaced the drum, thus allowing the shaft to reach far greater heights. Excessive speed eventually became a concern, too, as some cities enacted "vertical speed limits" into their building codes.

The boom in skyscraper construction that occurred as the 1800s drew to a close meant that the Otis brothers soon had a thriving business. They installed an elevator in Paris's Eiffel Tower in 1889 and one in the Washington Monument the following year. They also worked on smaller projects, including passenger lifts in apartment houses and department stores. Some of these were quite plush, with seats, lavish wood fixtures and, occasionally, chandeliers. By 1913 the Otis Company had gained international renown for installing an elevator inside what was then the tallest structure in the world, the 60-story Woolworth Building in New York City. The company eventually expanded into the escalator business after the Otis brothers bought the patent and plans for a moving staircase mechanism.

Chronology: Elisha Graves Otis

1811: Born.

1830: Began working as carpenter.

1845: Employed as master mechanic for bedstead firm.

1852: Invented hoisting device with safety catch.

1853: Founded E.G. Otis Company.

1854: Demonstrated safe passenger elevator in public.

1857: First passenger elevator installed by Otis Company.

1861: Granted patent for steam-powered elevator.

1861: Died.

As of 1997 the Otis name could be found on some 1.2 million elevators around the world. The firm, now part of the United Technologies Corporation, is headquartered in Farmington, Connecticut and employs 68,000 people. Its 1996 revenues checked in at $5.6 billion, mostly from elevator sales of about 40,000 per year (representing a 23 percent share of the global elevator installation market). The company also manufactures escalators and moving walkways of the type used at airports. A round-the-clock hotline staffed by Otis employees responds to worldwide requests for maintenance and repairs, and some 22,000 mechanics are available to take care of any problems.

Sources of Information

Bibliography

Fucini, Joseph J. and Suzy Fucini. Entrepreneurs: The Men and Women Behind Famous Brand Names and How They Made It. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1985.

Ingham, John N. Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983.

Jackson, Donald Dale. "Elevating Thoughts from Elisha Otis and Fellow Uplifters." Smithsonian, November 1989.

Malone, Dumas, ed. Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1928-1936.

Otis Elevator Co. "The World of Otis." Farmington, CT: Otis Elevator Company, 1998. Available from http://www.otis.com (May 8, 1998).

Useem, Jerry. "Giving Business a Lift." Inc., November 1997.

World of Invention. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994.

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