History of the Escalator

These "moving stairs" were originally an amusement park ride

Copenhagen Metro escalators
Stig Nygaard/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

An escalator is a moving staircase with steps that carry people up or down using a conveyor belt and tracks, keeping each step horizontal for the passengers. The escalator began, however, as a form of amusement rather than a practical mode of transportation.

The first patent related to an escalator-like machine was granted in 1859 to a Massachusetts man for a steam-driven unit. On March 15, 1892, Jesse Reno patented his moving stairs, or inclined elevator, as he called it. In 1895, Reno created a novelty ride at Coney Island in New York, New York, from his patented design: a moving stairway that elevated passengers on a conveyor belt at a 25-degree angle.

Modern Escalators

The escalator as we know it was redesigned in 1897 by Charles Seeberger. He created the name escalator from scala, the Latin word for steps, and elevator, a word for something that had already been invented.

Seeberger partnered with the Otis Elevator Co. to produce the first commercial escalator in 1899 at the Otis factory in Yonkers, New York. A year later, the Seeberger-Otis wooden escalator won first prize at the 1900 Paris Exposition, a world's fair held in Paris, France.

Meanwhile, the success of Reno's Coney Island ride briefly made him the top escalator designer. He started the Reno Electric Stairways and Conveyors Co. in 1902.

Seeberger sold his escalator patent rights in 1910 to Otis Elevator, which bought Reno's patent a year later. Otis went on to dominate escalator production by combining and improving the various designs. According to the company:

"In the 1920s, Otis engineers, led by David Lindquist, combined and improved the Jesse Reno and Charles Seeberger escalator designs and created the cleated, level steps of the modern escalator in use today."

Although Otis continued to dominated the escalator business, the company lost the product's trademark in 1950 when the U.S. Patent Office ruled that escalator had become a common term for moving stairways. The word lost its proprietary status and its capital "e."

Going Global

Escalators are employed around the world today to move pedestrian traffic in places where elevators would be impractical. They are used in department stores, shopping malls, airports, transit systems, convention centers, hotels, arenas, stadiums, train stations, subways, and public buildings.

Escalators are able to move large numbers of people and can be placed in the same physical space as a staircase, guiding people toward main exits, special exhibits, or simply the floor above or below. And you don't usually have to wait for an escalator, as opposed to an elevator.

Escalator Safety

Safety is a major concern in escalator design. Clothing can get tangled in the machinery, and children wearing certain types of shoes risk foot injuries. 

Fire protection of an escalator may be provided by adding automatic fire detection and suppression systems inside the dust collection and engineer pit. This is in addition to any water sprinkler system installed in the ceiling.

Escalator Myths

Here are common myths about elevators, provided by Sterling Elevator Consultants:

  • Myth: The steps could flatten out and cause people to slide down.
  • Truth: Each step is a triangular structure consisting of a tread and riser supported on a track. They can't flatten out.
  • Myth: Escalators move too fast.
  • Truth: Escalators move at half of normal walking speed, which is 90 to 120 feet per minute.
  • Myth: Escalators can reach out and "grab" you.
  • Truth: No part of an escalator can do this, but people must be careful with loose clothing, untied shoelaces, high heels, long hair, jewelry, and other items.
  • Myth: An escalator standing still is as good as a set of stairs.
  • Truth: Escalator steps aren't the same height as stairs, and using them as if they were increases the risk of falling or tripping.

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