'Going up'

The birth of the safety elevator

Created date

March 22nd, 2018
Elisha Otis demonstrates the elevator safety brake he invented.

There are those inventors who make modern living possible, and those who make modern living safe. Elisha Otis was of the latter ilk.

Ultimately proving himself a brilliant engineer, Otis had an unconventional start in life. Born in remote Halifax, Vt., in 1811, he started out as an unskilled laborer.

At 19, he relocated to Troy, N.Y., where he spent five years as a drayman before becoming a trained doll maker. And, amazingly, this was when the inventor emerged.

Early innovator

Frustrated with making only 12 dolls a day, he created a mechanized device that quadrupled production. For this achievement, he received a $500 bonus from his boss (roughly $13,000 today).

Given his fertile mind, Otis invested this money in other mechanized endeavors. One of them was a safety brake that could stop speeding trains.

While the idea was sound, Otis lost the water supply he used to power his mill and with it, the business. So the struggling entrepreneur said goodbye to upstate New York and moved to Yonkers, where he was hired to convert a sawmill into a small bedstead factory.

Although his career was interspersed with several unsuccessful projects, Otis began work on another safety brake—this time for an elevator. The idea came to him while he was cleaning out the old sawmill.

With heavy materials that he had to relocate to the building’s upper floors, some type of lifting device was a commonsense solution.

Even by 1850s standards, elevators were not at all conceptually new. Throughout history, man has been constructing lifts out of shoddy wooden platforms attached to rope pulley systems, some powered by hand, and others by animals.

As early as 236 BC, the Greek engineer and mathematician Archimedes built an elevator.

In the early 1400s, German engineer Konrad Kyeser devised a primitive lift along with basic schematic illustrations that still survive. Eighteenth-century French monarch Louis XV had a “flying chair” installed at Versailles for his mistress.

The age-old problem of getting to the tops of increasingly taller buildings continued to plague architects and engineers over the years. Europeans were quite innovative in this vein.

In 1835, the British company Frost and Stutt built a steam-driven elevator that operated on a counterweight system. Eleven years later, William Armstrong devised the “hydraulic crane,” a waterfront unit for loading ship cargo.

But there was one major gap in the face of these advances. Those elevators meant to carry passengers were potential death traps.

It was not uncommon for ropes and cables to break due to excessive weight or operative wear. And this was where Otis saw an opportunity: make elevators safe and change the way we build.

‘Safety elevator’

In addition to its cable-based support, Otis’s elevator employed a proprietary braking system wherein geared cogs engaged a knurled lift frame if the cable failed. He demonstrated his invention during the 1853 New York World’s Fair.

With Otis standing on a raised demo-model elevator, his assistant sliced the hoisting cable, eliciting horrified gasps from the crowd. To their astonishment, the safety brake’s gears locked and the lone passenger was unscathed.

His presentation had the desired effect. Shortly thereafter, orders for Otis’s “safety elevator” poured in to his newly established company.

In fact, the number of purchases doubled year after year. And despite his untimely death from diphtheria in 1861, his invention and the business it produced both flourished under the leadership of his sons.

By the late nineteenth century, cities that once grew out suddenly grew up. Today, the company started by this little-known inventor employs over 65,000 people and generates an estimated $12 billion in annual revenue.

The safe, state-of-the-art elevators that they build still bear his name—Otis.