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“all Safe, Gentlemen, All Safe!”

July 2024
12min read

The ups and downs of the invention that forever altered the American skyline

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.

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.

Ten stories was about the limit for an office building put up in the traditional way, that is, by piling brick on brick, or stone on stone. As W. A. Starrett, a leading New York builder, pointed out many years later, “Masonry structures of ten stories and more demanded lower walls of such fortresslike thickness and sparse window vents that the ground-floor space, most valuable of all, was devoured and the sunlight all but excluded.” This difficulty was overcome, however, when Chicago engineers and architects, soon followed by their counterparts in other cities, began designing buildings whose walls did not have to bear any weight, but were simply curtains of glass and brick, uniformly thin from bottom to top, hung on a hidden iron or steel skeleton that held the building up. The first of these buildings was completed in 1885, and five years later New York had a genuine skyscraper, the golden-domed, twenty-two-story building erected by Joseph Pulitzer to house his New York World .

Steam elevators were not well adapted to even quite modest skyscrapers. Not only were they slow, but the drums around which their hoisting cables were wound took up an enormous amount of room when they had to be made wide enough to accommodate the hundreds of feet of cable needed to haul an elevator to the top of a fifteen- or twenty-story building. But as it turned out, the Otises and their competitors were ready with a new kind of elevator, the hydraulic, which took up relatively little space and which could be made to travel at six or seven hundred feet a minute, nearly three times the speed of the fastest Otis steam elevators. This was still less than half the speed at which some modern elevators travel, yet it gave rise to talk of elevator sickness, whose principal symptoms were said to be dizziness and nausea. In 1890 Scientific American suggested, not altogether convincingly, that this new disease was caused by the fact that when an elevator stopped suddenly, some parts of one’s body stopped sooner than others. The best preventive medicine, the magazine advised, was to press one’s head and shoulders firmly against the wall or frame of the elevator car, so that all parts of the body would stop at once.

Many hydraulics were of the direct or plunger type. The elevator car sat on top of a long piston that slid up and down in an equally long cylinder sunk into the ground below the building. When the operator opened a valve letting water from a compression chamber shoot into the bottom of the cylinder, the piston was forced up, and the elevator rose. To bring it down again he opened another valve allowing the water to escape slowly and the piston to sink back into its sheath.

Hydraulic elevators had one disconcerting habit. When left unattended they sometimes took off on their own, slowly rising in their shafts until intercepted and brought back to earth. The usual cause of this creeping, or drifting, as it was known in the elevator business, was a leaky control valve that allowed water from the compression chamber to seep slowly into the driving cylinder. “Of course, if you get careless and don’t check your washers often enough, they creep on you,” the chief engineer of a twenty-six-story New York office building told a reporter some years ago. “Usually, it’s a matter of a floor or two, but over a weekend these babies can work right up to the top story.” Hydraulic elevators could not creep through the roof, however, since they were routinely fitted with safety valves that would let water out of the driving cylinder and halt the upward movement of the car before it reached the top of its shaft.

Water-powered hydraulics, most of which are now equipped with anticreeping devices to discourage nocturnal or weekend wandering, are still in use in some older buildings. They include the Gotham Hotel and Lord & Taylor in New York, Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, and the Atheneum in Boston.

But for the past seventy years or so, most new buildings of more than five or six stories have been equipped with electrically powered traction elevators. One common variety, first put into use by Otis in 1903, is the gearless traction machine, powered by a variable-speed electric motor located at the top of the elevator shaft. This motor drives a large, deeply grooved sheave, over which pass a set of parallel cables that are fastened at one end to the top of the elevator and at the other to a heavy counterweight. When the sheave is rotated, the friction between grooves and cables causes the elevator to go up or down. In a really tall building an elevator of this sort had a big advantage over a plunger-type hydraulic—it obviated the expensive and tricky job of sinking a cluster of perfectly aligned cylinders hundreds of feet into the rock beneath the building.

Despite Elisha Otis’ invention, elevator accidents were distressingly frequent until well into the present century. One reason was that the safety devices used by Otis’ competitors were not all as foolproof as his. Moreover, Otis’ wagonspring safety brake had a serious limitation. It was fine for stopping an elevator that traveled at a dignified pace. But an elevator that was already descending at a speed of several hundred feet a minute when its supporting cable gave way could not be brought to an abrupt halt without injuring its occupants. In 1878 Elisha Otis’ son Charles invented a safety brake, activated by a speed governor of the flying-ball type commonly used on steam engines, that would bring a runaway car to a gradual stop. Prom then on, most elevators were fitted out with this or similar controls—none of which, however, were quite as certain in their operation as the elegantly simple device displayed at the Crystal Palace.


Some elevators were equipped with air cushions. That is, the elevator was fitted snugly to its shaft so that, if other safety devices should fail, and the elevator should fall, it would act as a huge ram, or piston, compressing the air beneath it so as to form an elastic buffer. The idea was sound, but when it was tried out at the Parker House in Boston, in 1879, the experimenters made a serious error. They neglected to install vents in the lower part of the shaft through which some of the compressed air could escape. When the rope was cut, and the test car dropped, the air pressure quickly built up to a point where it blew out the shaftway doors. With the air cushion thus ruptured, the car plunged to the bottom of the shaft, injuring all eight persons aboard. Another test was made at the Chicago Exposition of 1880 with a carload of passengers who had not, one assumes, heard about the Parker House fiasco. This time all went well. “The car fell 109 feet,” Harper’s reported. “The passengers walked out smiling, and the crowd cheered with wild enthusiasm.”

Safety brakes and air cushions notwithstanding, the New York Tribune , in 1912, cited published data showing that 2,671 persons had been reported injured or killed in elevator accidents in the United States in the years from 1909 through 1911. The paper suggested that the true total was probably much greater. It was popularly assumed that the higher an elevator rose, the more dangerous the ride. Thus, even though there was little basis for this notion, when Frank W. Woolworth, the five-and-ten-cent-store king, undertook to put up the tallest office building in the world—on completion, in 1913, it soared fifty-eight stories and 780 feet above City Hall Park in lower Manhattan—his publicity agents bore down hard on the assertion that its elevators would have every safety device known to elevator science (see “The World’s Tallest Building” by Spencer Klaw, A MERICAN H ERITAGE , February, 1977). When the day came to try them out, no human being rode the test car as its temporary supporting rope was cut and it hissed down the shaft. The sole occupant was a tumbler full of water, and so gentle was the car’s landing—or so the Woolworth publicity men announced—that not a drop was spilled.

With the completion of the Woolworth Building the heroic age of the elevator came to an end. To be sure, a number of striking improvements still lay ahead. In 1915 Otis engineers invented an automatic leveling device that made it unnecessary for elevator operators to go through a series of jerky, last-minute landing maneuvers. Nine years later Otis scored again, introducing electrical controls that made it possible to bring a high-speed elevator to a smooth stop at its destination simply by pushing a button at the start of the trip. This allowed elevators to be operated at speeds so great that an operator forced to rely on old-fashioned manual controls would be able to hit the floor he was aiming for only by good luck. In 1950 this process of automation was carried further when Otis put into service in Dallas the first of the nowfamiliar, high-speed, push-button elevators that require no operator at all. But the novelty of riding in an automated elevator quickly wears off. Moreover, an elevator ride no longer offers even the thrill of danger, one insurance company having calculated that it is five times as safe these days to take an elevator as it is to walk up or down a flight of stairs.

Such excitement as has been generated recently by elevators has been architectural rather than technological. Some hotels now have glass-enclosed observation elevators that glide up and down the walls of huge inner courtyards, or atriums, around which the hotel’s guest rooms are ranged. Sometimes people ride these elevators purely for the sake of riding, not just to get to their rooms. The writer Roger Angell has described a party in the lobby of one hotel equipped wih such elevators, the thirty-story Hyatt Regency in Houston, on the night before the 1974 Super Bowl Game. “Late that night, early that morning, the scary, silent elevators continued to rise and fall, bearing solitary drunks and clinging, wordless couples,” he wrote in The New Yorker . “Some of them rode up and down again and again, holding on to the railing with both hands and watching the crowded, clustered party recede and advance below them, as if seen through some fantastic zoom lens.”

Observation elevators have also been built to travel on exterior walls, as they do at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, where ascending passengers are treated, fog permitting, to a spectacular and expanding view of the city and its bay. Even in an age of jet travel—and what can one really see from a 747?—riding elevators like these can yield some of the childlike pleasure felt by those who experienced for the first time the stately motion of the vertical screw railway, or who rocketed up, at six hundred feet a minute, to the twenty-second floor of the World Building, heads and shoulders pressed tight against the wall to ward off elevator sickness.


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