History of the Escalator

The Escalator: A Conveyor Type Transport Device That Moves People

Copenhagen Metro escalators. Stig Nygaard/Creative Commons

An escalator is a conveyor type transport device that moves people. It is a moving staircase with steps that move up or down using a conveyor belt and tracks, keeping each step horizontal for the passenger.

However, the escalator began as a form of amusement rather than a practical form of transport. The first patent relating to an escalator-like machine was granted in 1859 to a Massachusetts man for a unit that was steam driven.

 On March 15, 1892, Jesse Reno patented his moving stairs or inclined elevator, as he called it. In 1895, Reno created a new novelty ride at Coney Island from his patented design. It was a moving stairway that elevated passengers on a conveyor belt at a 25-degree angle.

Meet the Scala Elevator

The escalator as we know it was later re-designed by Charles Seeberger in 1897. He created the name "escalator" from the word "scala," which is Latin for steps and the word "elevator," which had already been invented.

Charles Seeberger partnered with the Otis Elevator Company to produce the first commercial escalator in 1899 at the Otis factory in Yonkers, N.Y. A year later, the Seeberger-Otis wooden escalator won first prize at the Paris Exposition Universelle in France. Meanwhile, Reno's Coney Island ride success briefly made Jesse Reno into the top escalator designer and he went on to start the Reno Electric Stairways and Conveyors company in 1902.

Charles Seeberger sold his patent rights for the escalator to the Otis Elevator Company in 1910. The company also bought Reno's escalator patent in 1911. Otis would go on to dominate escalator production by combining and improving the various designs of escalators.

According to Otis: "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. Over the years, Otis dominated the escalator business, but lost the product's trademark. The word escalator lost its proprietary status and its capital "e" in 1950 when the U.S. Patent Office ruled that the word "escalator" had become just a common descriptive term for moving stairways."

Escalators Go Global

Escalators are used around the world 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 they can be placed in the same physical space as a staircase. You don't usually have to wait for an escalator and they can guide people toward main exits or special exhibits. 

Escalator Safety

Safety is a major concern in escalator design. For example, certain items of clothing can get entangled in the escalator. There also is a risk of foot injuries for children wearing certain types of shoes. 

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.