- Historic Sites
“all Safe, Gentlemen, All Safe!”
The ups and downs of the invention that forever altered the American skyline
August/September 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 5
This process did not begin at once. The first passenger elevators were installed in old buildings, or else in new buildings having no more than five or six stories. Many of these elevators were built by Otis or by his two sons, Charles and Norton, who took over the business after their father died of diphtheria in 1861, and who soon found themselves turning out more passenger elevators than freight hoists. They were particularly successful in selling them to hotels, for reasons spelled out in an 1869 catalogue bearing the imprint of Otis Brothers & Co. The catalogue noted that in a hotel whose owner has had the good sense to put in an elevator, “it is evident that the upper stories, instead of being occupied only under a press of business … or at reduced prices, are to become in every respect the best and most profitable parts of the house.…” On these upper floors, the catalogue added persuasively, “the guest enjoys a purity and coolness of atmosphere, an extended prospect, and an exemption from noise, dust and exhalations of every kind.” Then came the clincher: “Whereas formerly this required a hundred upward steps—leaving the sufferer exhausted and perspiring at the journey’s end— the OTIS ELEVATOR now dispatches the formidable task in half a minute of repose and quiet.” Elevators were soon being designed to be elegant as well as restful. An Otis elevator in the Congress Hall Hotel in Saratoga Springs was lyrically described by its makers as “richly carpeted, with a large mirror and luxurious sofas … finished throughout with panels, pilasters, brackets, carvings and mouldings in richly variegated colors of birds-eye maple, French walnut, tulip-wood and ebony, lighted up with chaste and appropriate touches of gilding.”
Although the firm that Elisha Otis founded quickly established itself as the world’s leading supplier of elevators, a distinction that is still held by its successor, the Otis Elevator Company, it had many competitors. They included an ingenious Bostonian named Otis Tufts, who took out a patent in 1859 on a machine he called a “vertical screw railway.” This elevator’s hoisting rope couldn’t break, because it didn’t have one. Instead it had a gigantic screw, or bolt, that ran from the basement straight up through the middle of the elevator car to the head of the shaftway. When this heavy, spirally grooved column—it was nearly two feet thick—was rotated in the right direction, it screwed the car up to the top of the building.
One of Tufts’ elevators was put into service in 1859 at the new Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York, where it attracted tens of thousands of sightseers. They included the future Edward VII of England, who stopped by on a visit to New York in 1860 to admire what Harper’s magazine described as the elevator’s “massive proportions, its stately movement.…” But the vertical screw railway had two serious drawbacks. It was a bit too stately—that is, slow—and it cost several times as much as a standard Otis machine. As a result, after selling a second screw elevator to the Continental Hotel in Philadelphia, Tufts found no further buyers.
Another early competitor, who later sold out to the Otises, was Cyrus Baldwin. Baldwin invented an elevator whose suspending cables passed over a pulley at the top of the elevator shaft and were attached, at the other end, to a counterweight consisting of a large iron bucket. This bucket ran up and down in a tube, or standpipe, paralleling the shaft. By stepping on a pedal, an operator seated in the elevator cab could slosh water into the bucket, thereby causing the cab to rise. When he wanted to come down again, he stepped on another pedal that let the water out. Elevators of this kind were a lot faster than conventional steam-driven models, which were only a little less poky than the vertical screw railway, and for a while they were quite popular. But they were hard to control—the operator had to fiddle with a hand brake as well as the two pedals—and with the development of the genuine hydraulic elevator (of which more in a moment), the water-bucket elevator went out of vogue.
By the early 1870’s the elevator was beginning to change the skyline of American cities. The demand for office space had been growing as business flourished after the Civil War, and businessmen saw that the elevator had made it possible to meet this demand by building up instead of out. Whereas five stories had previously been thought to be about as high as an office building ought to go, seven- and eight-story buildings now sprang up in downtown New York, and when the Panic of 1873 abruptly ended the postwar construction boom, the finishing touches were being put on the ten-story Western Union Telegraph Building, whose elaborately gabled and mansarded tower soared above lower Broadway to an unprecendented height of 260 feet.