Editor’s Note: Read more unknown and curious design origin stories here.
The first passenger elevator got off to a slow start. Installed in 1857 at the Haughwout Department Store in New York, it was shut down after just three years because customers refused to accept it. Powered by a steam engine in the basement of the five-story building, it traveled at a mere 40 feet per minute. (Today’s fastest elevators can travel upwards of 40 feet per second.)
At the time, elevators were more of a tourist attraction than a means of transportation. The world had no tall buildings yet, and lower floors were the most desirable because they didn’t require you to climb many stairs. The higher the floor, the lower the rent.
But the elevator would change that completely, ushering in the era of the skyscraper and transforming the social and architectural landscape of the modern city.
A tale of two Otis
Even in the 1850s, the elevator wasn’t an entirely new idea. “Mechanized hoisting devices had existed since the early 1800s, but the transition from carrying goods to carrying people happened in the late 1850s,” Lee Gray, a professor of architectural history at UNC Charlotte, said in a phone interview. “That required a complete transformation of the technology, because early freight hoists had no cars: they were simply open platforms and, therefore, very dangerous.”
That spurred an immediate focus on safety. Industrialist Elisha Otis, who installed the first passenger elevator in New York, held a public demonstration at the 1854 world’s fair in New York in which he hoisted a platform high above a crowd, then cut the cable with an ax. “All safe,” he proclaimed as his safety device halted the fall. It was a clever system: if the rope snapped, a ratchet would pop open and catch on racks that ran alongside the shaft, stopping the car’s descent almost immediately.
Short history of the elevator
Although this event is often heralded as the turning point in elevator history, its relevance may have been inflated by the subsequent success of the Otis Elevator Company, today’s largest manufacturer of vertical elevators. “If Ford were the only motor company to survive the early 20th century, we would attribute the origin of the modern car to Ford rather than looking at the complex story that it is,” said Gray. The concept of the modern elevator was in fact borne out of two converging ideas, each with its own strengths.
The first patent for a “vertical railway” was filed in 1859 by Otis Tufts, a coincidentally named engineer whose design – which debuted the same year within New York’s Fifth Avenue Hotel – included an actual car with a bench inside, where people could sit. Elisha Otis’ elevator, on the other hand, had nothing but a platform and was patented later, in 1861. But crucially, it included his safety brake, which increased the public’s acceptance of elevators to the point that it became a standard.
“All modern elevator safety devices are predicated on the same idea. The difference is that today they’re based on speed. If an elevator car exceeds a preset safe speed, the safety activates to bring it to a stop in the shaft,” said Gray.
The first elevators didn’t sell well because they were expensive, but found some initial success as luxury items in hotels in New York, London and Paris. “They were beautifully designed rooms with upholstered seats and mirrors on the walls, sometimes even a small chandelier hanging down from the center of the car,” said Gray. They often were called “ascending room” or “upstairs omnibus,” borrowing words from other transportation systems.
They were all powered by steam engines and therefore slow. “The elevator operator would close the door and then the car would rise very slowly. It was not about speed. It was about an amazing new technology and a luxurious experience that allowed guests to avoid walking up the stairs,” said Gray.
But speed would become the driver of elevator evolution, along with its transition from hotel curiosity to office building staple, which began in the 1870s. The eight-story, 130-foot Equitable Life Building in downtown Manhattan, completed in 1870, was the first office building to feature elevators from the design stage. Built by the Otis Elevator Company, they were based on hydraulics.
“When we make the shift from hotels to commercial buildings, the steam engine disappears because it’s too slow. Instead, we get innovative hydraulic elevators that can go faster and are easier to maintain,” said Gray. The industry standard for the ideal response time of an elevator – no more than 30 seconds – was established in these years, and remains the same today.
When the Home Insurance Building – commonly considered the first skyscraper due to its steel frame – opened in Chicago in 1885, it had four elevators to serve its 10 floors. Elevator shafts were now at the core of architectural design.
Technology was catching up, but societal rules still resisted. The Equitable Life building had windows designed to suggest it had fewer floors. The insurance company that owned it occupied the lower ones, and the custodian’s apartment was at the top, as Andreas Bernard writes in “A cultural history of the elevator.” The prestige of the highrise had yet to emerge.
A further push came from the switch from hydraulics to electric engines. “The technological changes are directly tied to the desire to go higher and higher. What’s known as the modern electric traction elevator was developed in the first two decades of the 20th century, and it remains the industry standard to this day,” said Gray.
In the 1920s, avant-garde architects like Emery Roth, who peppered the New York skyline with his iconic residential buildings, started turning the once undesirable space directly under the roof – often laden with debris and almost unrentable – into fashionable apartments with terraces known as penthouses. The symbol of this new era is the Empire State Building, which opened in 1931 and would remain the world’s tallest skyscraper until 1970. It had 73 elevators, the largest elevator order to date, which traveled at the unprecedented speed of 1,200 feet per minute. They’re still an integral part of the building’s lore and popularity.
Safer than the stairs
Today, the world’s fastest elevator is installed in the Shanghai Tower, the second tallest building in the world. It travels at 67 feet per second (or 46 miles an hour) and runs continuously through 1,898 of the skyscrapers’ 2,073 feet.
Taller buildings have made elevator engineering more complicated. The first problem is that a significant portion of the building’s footprint needs to be reserved for the shafts, but there are also limits to what can be accomplished. The world’s tallest building, the Burj Kalifa in Dubai, has just 57 elevators (16 fewer than the Empire State Building, which is half as tall), but none of them can travel to all 160 floors: they are instead designed as express lines that serve different sections of the tower.
When designing lifts for what could become the next tallest skyscraper in the world, the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, elevator maker Kone wanted a record-breaking shaft running the full height of the tower, projected to be one kilometer (3,280 feet) tall. To do so, it had to come up with an entirely new type of cable made of carbon fiber, because conventional steel ones would be too heavy and jam up.
Elevators are among the safest forms of transport and are safer than escalators and even stairs (due to falls), but they can still cause fatal accidents, including gruesome ones. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that elevators injure 17,000 and kill 27 people a year in the US, with half of those deaths relating to workers performing installations or repairs.
Malfunctioning elevators tend to suddenly shoot upwards rather than fall, which is more difficult due to the safety brakes. One famous exception is a 1945 accident at the Empire State Building, when a B-25 bomber crashed into the 79th floor and severed the cables of one lift making it plunge from the 38th floor to the basement. (Operator Betty Lou Oliver survived the fall.) A recent example of such an accident happened in late 2018, when an elevator in the skyscraper formerly know as John Hancock Center in Chicago dropped 84 floors after a hoist rope broke. All passengers survived the fall.
Some people find elevators uncomfortable due to claustrophobia, or fear of enclosed spaces. Engineering firm KJA has calculated that the odds of being trapped, for someone who takes an elevator an average of 8 times a day, are 1 in 5,000 each month. Over 25 years that goes down to 1 in 17, meaning it’s somewhat likely for a city dweller to get trapped at least once in a lifetime. The record for the longest entrapment belongs to Manhattanite Nicholas White, who, in 1999, spent an entire weekend – 41 hours – stuck inside an elevator in his office building, after he decided to go down for a smoke on a Friday evening. The car was shut down for maintenance mid-journey and his ordeal was caught on tape by security cameras.
Where do you stand?
Why is it often awkward to ride in a packed elevator? Elevator etiquette is extremely variable throughout different times and different cultures, but a universal trait is that we don’t like to stand too close to strangers, which is why most people tend to maximize their personal space once inside an elevator car.
“If you’re alone in the elevator you stand in the center, because it’s your space and you control it. If someone else enters, you move to a corner or to a side,” said Grey.
Cognitive science researcher Rebekah Rousi conducted a study in which she observed elevator use in an office building in Australia, and noted that men and women behaved differently: “Older, perhaps more senior professional men traveled towards the back of the cabin, while women were towards the front. Women were less hesitant to look in mirrors while other people of any gender were traveling in the elevator, and more likely to look at the floor,” she said in an email.
Individual patterns can be suppressed by cultural norms. For example, Rousi says, in Japan, a highly hierarchical society, junior staff will let more senior staff into the elevator first, and then press the button for them.
A 1962 “Candid Camera” episode titled “Face the Rear,” based on the work of social psychologist Solomon Asch, illustrates how quickly social norms can be flipped in the confined space of an elevator, sometimes to comedic effect. In the episode, an elevator opens to show everyone inside – all actors – awkwardly facing the back wall. People who enter are puzzled at first, before eventually do the same, demonstrating the power of social pressure.
Ultimately, elevators present a unique social construct. “There aren’t too many places in which you find yourself so tightly confined, with people you may not know, traveling to tremendous heights and down again,” said Rousi.
Among the obvious changes that elevators have brought to the world, Gray highlights two underrated ones. “First, there’s no question that they have proved incredibly helpful to anyone who has difficulty moving due to disabilities. Second, until the 1950s almost all elevators had operators who were required to guide the car on its journey, as they didn’t automatically stop level with the floors. This provided a variety of employment opportunities in many cities,” he said.
Elevators are also associated with a specific type of music, the elevator pitch and, of course, the #elevatorselfie. Interestingly, the basic formula of a small room attached to cables going up and down has hardly ever been challenged, although one peculiar variation called the paternoster – which sports a continuous series of compartments endlessly looping with no doors – has enjoyed some success in Europe.
Newer buildings with many elevators are starting to do away with push buttons, using instead a system called destination dispatch. Users select which floor they want to go to and then board the car indicated by the system. “The idea is to take advantage of computers to get the most efficient traffic flow in a building. But for some passengers it’s kind of a loss of control, because other than keying in the floor, you don’t do anything else. The technology does everything for you. It’s not exactly like a self-driving car, but it has a similar feel,” said Gray. Pushing buttons seems to be important to us, although the one that gets bashed most furiously, the close-door one, does not actually work in most elevators in the US.
In 2017, German engineering company Thyssenkrupp unveiled a new elevator design called Multi that uses magnets instead of ropes. It can also move multiple cars in the same shaft, even horizontally, using less energy and saving space. The company says the new system, which is currently undergoing tests, could end the 160-year reign of the rope-dependent elevator.