The invention of a safety device for the elevator made possible the construction of highrise
buildings, thus enabling the traditionally horizontal city to turn to the vertical. In the
mid-nineteenth century hotels and commercial stores were among the first building types
to deploy elevators; with improvements in elevator technology, office buildings and
apartment buildings adopted them. As structural advances made possible taller buildings
new elevator technologies made possible easy and safe access to those floors.
Hoisting and lifting devices were long a common feature in mines, on building sites,
and for the loading of ships. Rarely more complicated than a pulley with a winch turned
by hand or animal, or later powered by steam, the particular danger of these early forms
of hoist was the absence of a safety device. Stretched or frayed ropes or cables might
break causing the platform to hurtle to the ground. The key invention that made the hoist
or lift safe for humans was a safety device that prevented free-fall disaster and its
inventor was Elisha Graves Otis (1811–1861).
Born in Halifax, Vt., the son of a farmer and part-time inventor, Otis left high school
and moved to Troy, New York in 1829 where he opened a sawmill and manufactured
carriages and wagons. In 1851 he moved to Yonkers, New York where he worked for a
bedstead manufacturer and while installing machinery in a new factory he developed a
hoist that incorporated a number of new features, including an automatic ratchet device to
hold the platform in place should the hoist rope break. He received a number of orders for
the device and to publicize it, held a demonstration at the American Institute Fair at P.T.
Barnum’s Crystal Palace in New York in 1854. While standing on a platform that was
raised to a height of thirty or forty feet above the ground he cut the supporting rope. As
viewers gasped the platform remained in place and Otis announced to the assembled
crowd, “All safe, gentlemen, all safe.” Though a relatively crude device—lugs were
driven into the platform when tension from the hoisting rope was broken—and the stop
abrupt, the device was effective.
The first orders received by the company were for freight elevators which were able to
exploit the steam power present elsewhere in the building to raise and lower the platform,
but on 23 March 1857 Otis installed an elevator in the new five-story china and glassware
shop of E.V.Haughwout and Company at 488 Broadway in New York. In addition to the
safety device demonstrated at the Crystal Palace, Otis installed a freestanding twocylinder
belt-driven steam engine that enabled elevators to be built in buildings without
their own extensive special power sources thus enabling elevators to be installed in
buildings other than factories. (The Otis Company remains one of the largest
manufacturers of elevators today.) The first steam-driven elevator in Chicago was
installed in 1864 in the Charles B.Farwell Store at 171 North Wabash Avenue.
With the construction of tall buildings, notably in New York and Chicago, the need for
efficient elevators necessarily increased and engineers experimented with different types.
Entries A–F 753
In 1859, a Boston engineer Otis Tufts built a screw-type elevator was built in the Fifth
Avenue Hotel in New York City. Tufts called his device a “vertical screw railway,”
effectively a large central screw, ninety feet long and 12 inches in diameter, which raised
and lowered the platform. Slow and relatively expensive, the screw-type of elevator also
had an unnervingly jerky movement. Another elevator type was developed by Cyrus
W.Baldwin for the Hale Elevator Company in Chicago. It employed a hydraulic system
that acted under water pressure and was first installed in the warehouse of Burley and
Company on West Lake Street in Chicago in 1870. The hydraulic elevator was
particularly effective in the highest of the new skyscrapers and was demonstrated at the
Eiffel Tower in Paris (1889).
Conversion to electric operation begun in the 1880s brought distinct advantages and
enabled the diffusion of the elevator to private apartment houses and smaller office
buildings. Traditionally elevators required a special operator, skilled at meeting the floor
levels, and opening and closing the gates. “Watch your step,” was the traditional elevator
operator’s call to passengers when he (or she) failed to meet the floor level exactly. But
electric operation, using push-button controls introduced first in the 1890s meant that
apartment dwellers themselves could operate the elevators. Electric elevators had the
advantage of clearing the basements of complex and noisy machinery. In New York, as
Cromley has pointed out, the electric elevator also helped introduce a new double-lot
sized flat building, typically of seven stories. Because of the elevator it was possible to
charge rents equably from floor to roof which not only compensated for the cost of the
elevator but made residents feel more secure: all fellow residents were of the same
income bracket.
Elevators were not only expensive to build but as building heights increased it became
necessary to add more of them to expeditiously transport people to the upper floors. More
elevators, however, consumed more of the floor plate, cutting down on rental income. In
order to reduce this theft of space, experiments were also tried with double-height
elevators stopping at even and odd floors. Staggered tubes with elevators running express
to a point one-third or one half of the way up the building, and with passengers required
to change elevators for local service for the remainder of the journey are commonplace
In addition to its practical virtues, the elevator has also been a potent design symbol
for 20th century architects. Among Antonio Sant’Elia’s drawings for his Città Nuova (1914), for
example, was one project for an apartment house with the elevator projecting from the
slanted exterior of the building. This elevator served as a potent symbol of modernity. In
William van Alen’s Chrysler Building, in New York City (1930) the elevator doors were
decorated with hardwood veneers forming stylized flower patterns and the interiors of the
elevator cars were decorated with elaborate marquetry. The effect of the lobby and its
decoration was like a lush underwater world from which the elevators would speed one to
the light. Louis A.Kahn exposed the elevator shafts and covered them with brick, giving
them the character of medieval towers on the Richards Medical Research Laboratories,
Philadelphia, Pa (1957–64). In the 1960s exposed elevators on the interior of the building
became part of the kinetic pleasures of the atria built by John Portman in hotels such as
the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta (1967) and elsewhere. This form of exposed elevator has
been imitated, generally with rather baleful results, in shopping malls throughout the

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