Today I am celebrating the life of Elisha Graves Otis who, on this day in 1857, installed the first elevator that was able to safely carry human passengers at 448 Broadway, Manhattan. The E V Haughwout Building didn’t strictly need an elevator. At five storeys high, it was no taller than many of the other buildings in New York. It was a store that sold cut glass, silverware, hand painted china and chandeliers. Its owner knew that people would come to see the elevator and hopefully stay to buy his wares.
Simple hoists had been around For a very long time. The first recorded example was a device built by Archimedes in the third century BC. The Romans used hoists at the Colosseum to raise wild animals from its underground labyrinth up to the floor of the arena. King Louis XV of France had a device installed at Versailles that he called a ‘flying chair’. It allowed his mistresses to visit him in secret. It seems to have been a sort of cabinet that the user hauled up and down by pulling on a rope. King Louis and his mistresses were exceedingly lucky that the rope held out. Early hoists had one major flaw. If the rope broke the whole thing just plummeted to the ground.
Elisha Otis was a born tinkerer. He invented an automatic lathe that could turn out bedsteads four times faster than a human could make them. After that he started designing a safety brake for trains and an automatic bread oven. In 1851 he moved to Yonkers, New York and took over an old sawmill. He wanted to turn it into a bedstead factory, but there was a lot of stuff that needed moving first. He really needed a hoist to move things from floor to floor but he knew they were unreliable and sometimes broke. He and his two sons applied themselves to the problem. They hit on a way of improving the safety by adding brakes to the mechanism. If the hoist should fall at excessive speed, there were rollers that would lock the elevator into its guides and prevent it from falling to the ground.
He didn’t patent the device immediately. In fact, he did not patent it until 1861. But when the bedstead making didn’t work out he built and sold three of his improved ‘safety hoisters’ in 1853. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a great business man back then. When he made his first sale, he accepted a cannon and its carriage in part payment. By the end of the year his company was worth only $122.71, and that’s only if you include two petrol cans and a second hand lathe.
Luckily, he was rescued by P T Barnum who helped him inject a bit of showmanship into the operation. He paid Otis $100 to bring his contraption to his ‘World’s Fair’ at the Crystal Palace in New York. There, he was suspended high above the crowds on a platform that was held in place by a single rope. Doffing his top hat, he waited for the crowd’s attention then instructed an assistant to cut through the rope with an axe. His audience were terrified when the platform began to plunge floorward, it fell about two feet and then the spring operated brakes came into effect. He announced calmly “All safe, gentleman. All safe.”
After this his business improved considerably. For the rest of 1854, he sold one elevator a month. In 1855 they almost doubled and then doubled again the following year. and he modified his invention so that it was able to carry people from floor to floor safely. By the 1860s his invention had made it possible to increase the height of buildings considerably. Even when modern materials allowed people to build 20, 30 or 40 storeys high, those buildings would have been useless without Elisha’s elevator.
While I was reading about elevators today, I discovered that the first elevator shaft pre-dated the first elevator by four years. The Cooper Union Building was designed with a shaft because Mr Cooper was pretty confident that someone would soon invent the elevator to go inside it. He chose to build a cylindrical shaft. Later, Otis designed a special elevator to go inside it.