The modern city is defined by tall steel buildings stretching hundreds of feet above the streets. Until March 23, 1857, skyscrapers were little more than a dream. The first Otis commercial passenger elevator, installed at 488 Broadway in New York City, created new levels of safety — and spurred architects and engineers to push future designs ever upward.
The basic concept for a lifting mechanism using ropes first appeared during the 3rd century BCE. In most cases, these primitive elevators often amounted to a slab of sturdy, lightweight wood or stone drawn upward by a rope thrown over a tree branch and pulled by a person or beast of burden.
It would be almost two millennia before the precursors to today’s designs appeared. At the palace of Versailles, King Louis XV of France had his servants install a more complex system using counterweights to smooth out the movement from one height to another in the mid-18th century. Determined to visit his mistress’ apartment on the floor directly above his quarters without having to find the nearest staircase, the king inadvertently gave rise to a technological breakthrough.
During the early 1800s, steam-powered elevators came into use, primarily for moving freight up to storage areas or, in a few instances, to bring paying tourists up a few dozen feet for breathtaking views. Near the middle of the century, Sir William Armstrong came up with a revolution: hydraulic supports. By multiplying the power of a piston with an enclosed cylinder filled with water or oil, larger loads could be carried to higher heights.
Living 15 miles north of New York City in Yonkers, 40-year-old Elisha Otis worked as a mechanic and floor manager at a bedframe factory. A modestly successful inventor with tremendous curiosity, he quietly wondered one evening if there was a better way for scrap wood to be lifted into the upper floors. Hydraulic platforms, though clearly strong enough, were unreliable at best and, at worst, unsafe.
In order to protect his employees from injury, Otis would have to come up with some type of braking system. Working with his sons to conceive and test ideas during his spare time, he produced a “safety elevator” that would lock in place if the lifting cable snapped. Upon installing the system at his employer’s factory in 1852, he received no recognition for the project.
The following year, Otis sold three elevators while continuing to work for the factory. Hustling to market his “Life-Saving Steam Elevators” to other businesses, he found himself frustrated with the lack of orders for his industry-changing design. Determined to find a way to convince people of the superiority of his Excelsior Elevators, Otis set up a demonstration at the 1854 World’s Fair in New York.
Standing on a platform in the Crystal Palace, he called out to visitors of the exhibition hall that he would have the only rope holding him aloft cut. When the elevator stopped shortly after the axe severed the rope, the crowd gasped. Otis’ reputation blossomed — and so did sales: 7 during the latter half of 1854 and twice as many in 1855.
Now a hot property, Otis elevators were frequently used to lift goods and employees into the higher levels of a building. On March 23, 1857, that all changed. The E.V. Haughwout and Company department store opened an elevator to carry customers up and down between the store’s five floors. Moving at a speed of 40 feet per minute, acceptance of Otis’ design turned a corner, making the design a must-have as the Industrial Revolution kicked into high gear. Two decades later, as stronger steel allowed for structures to achieve greater heights, the Otis elevator was at the center of the building race — more than 2,000 were in service, covering the distance between floors at greater rates of speed and with improved safety by the 1870s.
Though the construction boom would reach all over the world, no city experienced the change in altitude quite like the Big Apple. Manhattan Island, the narrow 23-square-mile strip of land the five boroughs of New York lay on, provided limited real estate for development. Knowing Otis elevators could safely carry passengers wherever architects wanted, wealthy property owners pushed for taller and taller buildings to maximize the amount of square footage for rent. And, thanks to windows overlooking the Hudson and East Rivers, fees were literally turned upside down: the most expensive office space was now at the top of the building instead of at street level.
By the 1930s, the fruits of Otis’ labor were evident. Skyscrapers dotted the New York skyline, with the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building quickly turning into world icons just as new designers came up with plans to reach further into the atmosphere. With each successive advance in elevator technology, the structures themselves grew.
Nowadays, with the opening of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai on January 4, 2010, man can stand almost 2,000 feet above the street in air-conditioned comfort after a brief ride to the top. Moving at almost 40mph, the elevators are an astonishing 90 times faster than the design installed by Otis at the Haughwout Building in 1857.
Also On This Day:
1806 – The Lewis and Clark Expedition turns for home after reaching the Pacific Ocean
1912 – German physicist and rocket designer Wernher von Braun is born
1919 – Benito Mussolini founds his Fascist Party in Milan
1956 – Pakistan becomes the world’s first Islamic republic
2001 – The Russian Mir space station leaves orbit and disintegrates on re-entry into the atmosphere
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