In 1894, some ten years before automobiles mainstreamed horizontal transportation, the Otis Elevator Company installed the world’s first push-button elevator. Arguably this small vehicle did more to reshape cities than the motor car. Roads have long been wide, but buildings only started to climb skywards with the introduction of reliably safe vertical transportation.
Few people give elevators much thought yet this form of driverless mass transit is phenomenally popular. According to the Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation, over 210 billion passengers use elevators in the U.S. and Canada each year. That’s 325 million trips per day, second only to automobile journeys.
Long after the banishment of cars from urban streets – a measure more and more cities are considering – vertical transportation will still be necessary.
While almost all laud Henry Ford, and he is often blamed/praised for his contribution to the urban form, the even more blame/praiseworthy Elisha Graves Otis is known to but few. Pulleys and ropes have been lifting and lowering people and goods for millennia but when, in 1853, Otis developed a brake for his “Improved Hoisting Apparatus” he set off a chain of events that, within 20 years, started to radically reshape the urban form. (He died at the age of just 49, and it was his sons who developed the push-button elevator.)
Ropes – even steel ones – snap. The widespread acceptance of vertical transportation inside buildings happened only once people became convinced they wouldn’t hurtle to a surefire death.
And Otis himself had led the convincing. High above the crowd at the New York World’s Fair in 1854, the 42-year-old industrialist had an assistant cut the only rope suspending the platform on which he was standing. To gasps, the platform, and Otis, dropped – but it and he were stopped by a spring engaging a toggle on a cogged rail. The brake did its job, and the failsafe elevator had arrived.
Sales of the Otis Safety Elevator were painfully slow for the first few years but once builders realized they were no longer constrained to four or five stories – people were reluctant to climb much higher under their own steam – demand rocketed, and buildings started to reach for the sky. By 1873 there were 2,000 Otis elevators in use, and the Skyscraper Age beckoned.
“Taller buildings permitted the concentration of people of various disciplines in a single location and caused the cities to grow in their present form during the 1870s and 1880s,” wrote George R. Strakosch in the industry bible, The Vertical Transportation Handbook. (Strakosch worked for the Otis Elevator Company for 30 years – it’s still one of the world’s leading elevator firms. The others are Switzerland’s Schindler, Germany’s ThyssenKrupp, Finland’s Kone, and Japan’s Mitsubishi.)
Few people willingly walk or run up skyscraper stairs. It’s physically taxing, and it’s slow – the elevators in the Taipei 101 Tower in Taiwan, once the world’s tallest building, travel at a giddy thirty-five miles an hour.
The first elevators were much slower than this, and the first were also driven. Operators stopped and started them. Electronic controls put the operators out of work – “driverless” elevators took off, as it were, from the 1920s onwards.
Elevators travel over fixed routes – very fixed routes – and, compared to travel by automobile, they are mind-bogglingly safe. Thanks to the Otis brake no amount of cable snapping could result in an elevator falling down its shaft. Doors have been known to open with no elevator present and for people to fall down shafts, but once inside an elevator you’re as safe as safe can be. (So long as the building is not on fire, that is.)
If the elevator you ride was installed within the last 20 years, it will be genuinely automatic. You choose the floor you wish to alight at, but you have no other control – don’t bother pressing the door-close button because, according to the New York Times, it doesn’t work. Karen W. Penafiel, executive director of National Elevator Industry Inc., a trade group, said the close-door feature faded into obsolescence a few years after the enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Actin 1990.
Traveling the final few stories in Taipei 101 – to get to a viewing deck – costs a few dollars but, by and large, travel by elevator is free. That’s right, one of capitalism’s most enabling technologies – dense cities foster cultural ferment and powers economic productivity – is socialism writ large.
Thanks to Yuval Karmi for inspiring this piece.