The History of Elevators From Top to Bottom

A pair of elevator doors set in the wooden wall of a lobby
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By definition, an elevator is a platform or an enclosure raised and lowered in a vertical shaft to transport people and freight. The shaft contains the operating equipment, motor, cables, and accessories. Primitive elevators were in use as early as the third century B.C.E. and were operated by human, animal, or water wheel power. In 1743, a counter-weighted, man-powered personal elevator was built for King Louis XV, connecting his apartment in Versailles with that of his mistress, Madame de Châteauroux, whose quarters were one floor above his own.

19th Century Elevators

From about the middle of the 19th century, elevators were powered, often steam-operated, and were used for transporting materials in factories, mines, and warehouses. In 1823, two architects named Burton and Homer built an "ascending room," as they called it. This crude elevator was used to lift paying tourists to a platform for a panoramic view of London. In 1835, architects Frost and Stuart built the "Teagle," a belt-driven, counter-weighted and steam-driven lift was developed in England.

In 1846, Sir William Armstrong introduced the hydraulic crane and by the early 1870s, hydraulic machines began to replace the steam-powered elevator. The hydraulic elevator is supported by a heavy piston, moving in a cylinder and is operated by the water (or oil) pressure produced by pumps.

The Elevator Brakes of Elisha Otis

In 1852, American inventor Elisha Otis moved to Yonkers, New York to work for the bedstead firm of Maize & Burns. It was the owner of the company, Josiah Maize, that inspired Otis to start designing elevators. Maize needed a new hoisting device to lift heavy equipment to the upper floor of his factory.

In 1853, Otis demonstrated a freight elevator equipped with a safety device to prevent falling in case a supporting cable broke. This increased public confidence in such devices. In 1853, Otis established a company for manufacturing elevators and patented a steam elevator.

For Josiah Maize, Otis invented something he called an "Improvement in Hoisting Apparatus Elevator Brake" and demonstrated his new invention to the public at the Crystal Palace Exposition in New York in 1854. During the demonstration, Otis hoisted the elevator car to the top of the building and then deliberately cut the elevator hoisting cables. However, instead of crashing, the elevator car was stopped because of the brakes that Otis had invented. While Otis did not actually invent the first elevator, his brakes, used in modern elevators, made skyscrapers a practical reality.

In 1857, Otis and the Otis Elevator Company began manufacturing passenger elevators. A steam-powered passenger elevator was installed by the Otis Brothers in a five-story department store owned by E.W. Haughtwhat & Company of Manhattan. It was the world's first public elevator.

Elisha Otis Biography

Elisha Otis was born on Aug. 3, 1811, in Halifax, Vermont, the youngest of six children. At the age of twenty, Otis moved to Troy, New York and worked as a wagon driver. In 1834, he married Susan A. Houghton and had two sons with her. Unfortunately, his wife died, leaving Otis a young widower with two small children.

In 1845, Otis moved to Albany, New York after marrying his second wife, Elizabeth A. Boyd. Otis found a job as a master mechanic making bedsteads for Otis Tingley & Company. It was here that Otis first began inventing. Among his first inventions were a railway safety brake, rail turners for speeding the making of rails for four-poster beds and the improved turbine wheel.

Otis died of diphtheria on April 8th, 1861 in Yonkers, New York.

Electric Elevators

Electric elevators came into use toward the end of the 19th century. The first one was built by the German inventor Werner von Siemens in 1880. Black inventor, Alexander Miles patented an electric elevator (U.S. pat#371,207) on Oct. 11, 1887.

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Bellis, Mary. "The History of Elevators From Top to Bottom." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 28). The History of Elevators From Top to Bottom. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History of Elevators From Top to Bottom." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).

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