Elisha Graves Otis Produces the First Passenger Elevator with Safety Locks, Facilitating the Growth of High-Rise Buildings

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Elisha Graves Otis Produces the First Passenger Elevator with Safety Locks, Facilitating the Growth of High-Rise Buildings


A descendent of James Otis, a British immigrant who arrived in North America in the seventeenth century, Elisha Graves Otis was born in 1811. He grew up in Vermont before moving to the state of New York to work as a master mechanic. Working for the Bergen Company in Yonkers, he installed a "safety hoist" in a building in 1852 as a means to prevent the sudden fall of the elevator. Five years later, he designed and constructed the first safety elevator in a New York City building. By 1861, following additional improvements to his system, Otis's sons formed the Otis Elevator Company. Together with other innovations in building practices, the elevator became the cornerstone for the effective development of the skyscraper, the first of which rose in New York City. The elevator thus changed the urban landscape and, consequently, the way businesses worked in cities.


Elevators date as far back as Roman times. Engineering texts from the first century b.c. describe the use of platforms that employed pulleys and were operated by humans, animals, or even water power. Rome's Coliseum, for example, had 12 elevators that were used to hoist gladiators and wild animals to the stage level. Such tools, however, were used primarily to lift construction material and their existence is documented all the way to the nineteenth century. In some palaces, dumbwaiters were installed to bring the monarch's food more quickly then through the stairway. By then, in England, the steam machine was used to power certain lifting platforms, and a variation, the hydraulic pump (in which the fluid in the cylinder was thrust by steam), was also tested. Regardless of their potential use, these elevators all suffered from a major disadvantage—the platform might break loose from its attachment, thereby harming or killing passengers or the operators below. It comes as no surprise, then, that most elevators remained confined to use as freight lifts in factories. Otis's innovation, the elevator brake, however, would change this situation.

Elisha Graves Otis suffered from ill health throughout his life, also affecting his early attempts at establishing a business. In 1845 he moved to Albany, New York, where he worked as a master mechanic in the Tingley Bedstead Company. While there, he invented a railway safety brake and other devices to improve the running of turbine wheels.

In 1852 he moved to Yonkers, New York, to organize and install machinery for another bed-stead company, which required the use of a hoist to transport equipment to the factory floor. Otis became concerned with the equipment's safety problem and devised a pair of spring-loaded pieces of metal that would engage into the cogshaped rail if the rope gave way. So successful was the device that Otis soon received three unsolicited orders for similar systems. He set up his own shop and formally went into business for himself in 1854, selling his safety system for $300 apiece.

No new orders followed, however, prompting Otis in 1854 to promote his invention at the Crystal Palace Fair in New York City during its second season. There, facing a large crowd, Otis ascended in a drum-operated platform. Suddenly, he took out a knife and slashed the rope, and the safety system engaged automatically. Otis then announced (as he would in several such demonstrations), "all safe, gentlemen, all safe." New orders for Otis's device soon followed, totaling $13,488 by 1856. But it was not until 1857 that the first passenger elevator began operation, in the New York City Haugwout department store. At that time, the steam-powered elevator traveled at a leisurely 40 feet per minute (4.8 miles per hour). Otis, however, did not live to see the further success of his machine; he died of diphtheria at the age of 49 in 1861.

Otis's sons Charles and Norton took over the business, which at the time faced a strong deficit, and built a new factory and devised new elevator models that put the company back in the black. The hydraulic elevator replaced the vapor-powered one, as it could rise to greater heights at higher speeds (steam used winding drums while early hydraulics relied on a ram type, based on a plunger and cylinder). Later, the roped or geared hydraulic elevator would become capable of speeds up to 600 feet per minute and rise to 30 or more stories. Between 1880 and 1900, all major 10-or 12-story buildings in New York City used hydraulic elevators. In parallel to new methods of propulsion, other improvements—including enclosures, doors, stronger wires, and warning bells—were also added. The first electric elevator was installed in 1889, and five years later the first push-button machine went into service. Otis's invention now became an industrial tool essential to all kinds of businesses, thus changing the urban landscape.


The advent of the elevator in buildings reversed many trends and created new ones. For instance, hotels that had had trouble filling upper levels now found that they could charge more for rooms with a view. At the same time, the need for business space that followed the economic boom in North American cities in the 1870s meant that downtown locations were at a premium. The appearance of the iron-structured building, combined with the existence of the elevator, cleared the way for the appearance of the first skyscrapers, since metal structures allowed a better distribution of the building's weight and could include the elevator shafts without unduly stressing the building's internal structure. Insurance companies were among the first to advocate the construction of large, tall buildings that would reflect their financial power and success. The Equitable Company, for example, by commissioning a building with two elevator shafts—built by Otis Tufts, a competitor of the Otis Elevator Company—was able both to double the size of the average business building and to rent out the upper floors successfully.

Otis Elevator Company, however, remained a leader in the field. It rose to many challenges, including the design of a special diagonal elevator system (which remains in use to this day) for Paris's Eiffel Tower, inaugurated in 1889. Other challenges included devising how many elevators would be necessary for different types of buildings and how fast these machines should go.

By 1900 "elevatoring" was no longer an inventor's craft, but a complicated science that required both heavy engineering knowledge and an understanding of the business requirements of each building, especially as the number of floors increased. (In 1893 the average business "skyscraper" was 20 stories tall; ten years later, it was reaching 25.) Initially, architects suggested a simple rule of doubling the number of elevators every time the number of floors doubled. Soon, however, they realized that this rule did not solve the problem, for people still had to wait for the elevator. The advent of the new electric-traction elevator made further increases in speed and numbers of floors possible. Instead of huge hydraulic shafts required for elevator operation, the electric drum could be mounted at the top of the shaft without taking up rental space. The use of electricity also allowed better regulation of speed.

Safety problems, which continued to affect the elevator industry in the early years of its existence, were eventually ironed out. Otis's initial safety system turned out to work well only for slow-moving vehicles. Using the elevator shaft as a safety system in which compressed air would slow a falling car did not always work; figures released for the years 1909 to 1911 suggested that over 2,600 people had been killed in elevator accidents. Through the installation of new brake systems that clamped around the guiding rails, the elevator slowed down without injuring its occupants through sudden jerk movements.

In parallel to elevator safety improvements, a new jump in skyscraper design followed. In 1913 the Woolworth building was completed. It had 60 floors and 26 elevators and the safety system tested on inauguration day functioned perfectly. (The rope was cut and the bucket of water left in the car reportedly did not spill a drop.) In fact, the cars went so fast in regular traffic that New York City building codes had to be changed to allow for greater speeds. These speeds increased again in 1931 with the inauguration of the Empire State Building, whose 73 elevators went as fast as 1,200 feet per minute. There is a limit, however, to how fast one can travel comfortably in an elevator car. Several Mitsubishi models used in Japan since the mid-1990s average 2,200 feet per minute and take 12 floors to slow down to a stop—any faster and the passengers would likely fall sick or even injure themselves as a result of gravitational forces.

Further improvements followed but, aside from the fully automatic elevator that did not require an operator, most improvements have been a matter of architectural taste as well as a function of the passengers' comfort. The proliferation of elevators has, in turn, spawned a whole new behavioral process. People waiting for an elevator and express their impatience by pushing the button repeatedly. Then, for a few seconds or even minutes at a time, unacquainted users find themselves together in very tight confines. Unless they are riding in a glass paneled elevator (common in certain hotels and shopping malls), passengers typically occupy spaces near the controls or other corners and avoid eye contact or small talk. As for elevator phobia, it existed from the very beginning of safety elevators, being exacerbated by numerous accidents in the first years of operation. While elevators have in fact become one of the safest means of transportation, claustrophobia as well as the fear of crime in public elevators remain strong. These machines have also come to be associated in popular culture with various terrors and pleasures, ranging from fires and elevator-shaft falls to humorous skits and romantic encounters.

The sturdiness of elevator systems remains quite astounding, and some machines are in better condition than the buildings in which they operate. The hydraulic elevator operating in New York City's 34 Grammercy Park building, for example, was installed in 1883 and still runs today—at 51 feet per minute. Virtually as omnipresent as the elevator itself, the Otis Corporation continues to dominate the elevator market from its headquarters in Connecticut, where it tests new models in an 11-story tower.


Further Reading


Douglas, George H. Skyscrapers: A Social History in America. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1996.

Landau, Sarah Bradford, and Carl W. Condit. Rise of the New York Skyscraper 1865-1913. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

Strakosh, George R. Vertical Transportation: Elevators and Escalators. New York: John Wiley, 1967.


Dale Jackson, Donald. "Elevating Thoughts from Elisha Otis and Fellow Uplifters." Smithsonian Magazine (November 1989): 211-34.

Klaw, Spencer. "All Safe, Gentlemen, All Safe!" American Heritage (August/September 1978): 40-45.



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Elisha Graves Otis Produces the First Passenger Elevator with Safety Locks, Facilitating the Growth of High-Rise Buildings

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