A new week begins, and I could give you an elevator pitch of the event, but I’ll keep it to the usual length of a #HistoryMonday post. Now that I’m back to writing for my own personal edification instead of for academics, I don’t have to worry about too little length or citations. Anyways, let’s get to the event of focus.
On this day in 1857, Elisha Otis installs his first safety elevator in a commercial application. Even after having demonstrated its safety four years earlier at the Worlds Fair, he was only able to achieve minimal success. Thanks to his sons’ efforts in the ensuing years, the Otis Elevator Company they founded with their father success would come shortly after.
The key to the success of Otis’s elevator was the safe descent after having lifted cargo or passengers. Hoists already existed that could move objects to higher locations, but fears of stress on safety ropes plagued many elevator users. Otis showed his elevator was safe despite the rope being cut thanks to Otis’s safety brake for elevators.
Otis Elevator Company would change the composition of buildings. With safer means of transporting goods and people in buildings, these structures could be built more than a few stories while avoiding the arduous flights of stairs. Eventually, the structure that defines city skylines—the skyscraper owes its success to the elevator.
Beyond the original elevator being installed in the building on Broadway in New York, many more elevators were included in buildings constructed after 1857 and by 1860 the Otis Elevator Company was achieving more success than Elisha Otis could have predicted. Sadly, the greatest success was experienced by his sons, as Elisha passed away in 1860.
Elevators also created the new job of elevator operator, who were required to operate the levers guiding the ascent or descent of the car. Many of these operators were African-Americans who needed jobs post-slavery. As this profession grew, a union of the workers was organized in 1917. Eventually as elevators employed an automated system, the elevator operators were no longer needed.
Otis Elevator Company has become one of the most recognized elevator manufacturers thanks to the success of the elevator Elisha Otis invented. As the company continued to grow and install elevators in numerous buildings worldwide, the company also popularized the escalator and until 1950 had a near-exclusive claim on the term for the moving staircase. But as escalator became the default name for the moving staircase, Otis Elevator Company was unable to retain the trademark. So, escalators can be made by not just Otis but other elevator companies.
Where’s your favorite elevator you’ve ridden in?