“all Safe, Gentlemen, All Safe!”

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Of the mechanical wonders placed on view in the Crystal Palace, the great iron-and-glass exhibition hall erected in New York City in 1853 to house America’s first world’s fair, one of the most popular was a towering machine that was destined to transform the look of the world’s cities and the feel of city life. The machine was a freight hoist, or elevator, and it was the invention of a Yonkers, New York, factory engineer named Elisha Graves Otis. Like earlier inventions of Otis’—they included a semiautomatic lathe and a safety brake for railroad trains—he had constructed it out of his own head, in freehand fashion, without bothering to work out its design on paper.

The key element of Otis’ newest contrivance was a huge steel wagon spring. Shaped like a flattened oval, it was fixed horizontally above the open platform of the hoist, forming, in effect, a large carrying handle to which the hoisting rope was fastened. From time to time Otis himself would demonstrate to curious crowds the purpose of this arrangement. A handsome man in his early forties, with wavy hair and a luxuriant spade-shaped beard, he would climb onto the hoist platform, already heavily loaded with barrels and packing cases, and slowly run himself up toward the top of the two vertical guide rails between which the platform traveled. Upon reaching a height of thirty feet or so above the heads of the assembled spectators, he would tell an assistant to cut the hoisting rope. When the rope parted, the wagon spring would straighten out, forcing two large iron teeth, or safety dogs, into notches in the guide rails. As a result, instead of plunging to the bottom of its hoistway, the elevator would merely settle an inch or two and come to rest. Otis would thereupon take off his top hat, bow deeply, and announce, “All safe, gentlemen, all safe!”

When Otis patented his invention, elevators had already been around for a long time. Nearly three centuries before Christ, Archimedes used rope, pulleys, and a winding drum to construct a hoisting machine, and the Colosseum in Rome was equipped with twelve large elevators by means of which groups of gladiators and cages of wild animals were raised to the arena floor. In the eighteenth century, Prince Eugene of Savoy and Emperor Joseph II of the Holy Roman Empire fitted out their palaces with enormous dumb-waiters on which, according to one historian, “tables loaded with food rose through the floor into the secret chambers of the great, to safeguard conferences and assignations from observations by the unauthorized.” Shortly before her death in 1780 Maria Theresa, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, and Archduchess of Austria, had three such elevators adapted for her own use so that she could avoid climbing stairs. These and other forerunners of Otis’ elevator were mostly powered by slaves or servants, who pulled on a rope or turned a capstan. Some may have been driven by water wheels, and at least one—a hoist installed at Mont-Saint-Michel in 1203—was driven by a donkey walking inside a wheel resembling a huge squirrel cage. But as early as 1835 a steam-powered hoist was in use in England, and at the time Otis was putting on his show in the Crystal Palace a number of American factories had such devices.

These machines had one serious flaw. Their hoisting platforms tended to break loose from their supporting ropes, often killing or seriously injuring the operator and anyone else who happened to be on board. Otis had remedied this deficiency, and he had done something more. While there is no evidence that he himself at first thought of his invention as anything other than a crashproof freight hoist for factories and warehouses, it soon struck other people that such a machine, suitably modified, might be used to move people up and down as well as crates and barrels. Thus the modern passenger elevator was born, enabling architects and engineers to push buildings upward to previously unthinkable heights, and in so doing to create, first in the United States and later in other countries as well, a new urban landscape.