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Otis vs Otis: Elevators Past, Present, and Future

Elevators have been around since the time of Ancient Rome. Archimedes was building them in 336 B.C., and gladiators and animals rode lifts to the Roman Coliseum arena by A.D. 80. These were simple open platforms with hoists operated by people or animals, or sometimes water wheels.

One of the earliest known passenger elevators was built for King Louis XV.  Installed at Versailles in 1743, it was known as the “flying chair”, and enabled secret visits with his mistress in her 3rd floor rooms. Installed on the outer palace walls, the king entered it from his balcony. Men stationed inside a chimney raised and lowered the platform through the use of ropes and pulleys.

The Palace of Versailles

Elevators became more common in the mid-1800s during the Industrial Revolution, transporting freight in factories and mines. These elevators were often based on the hydraulic system, using pressure from water or oil. The drawback was that buildings with hydraulic elevators needed to have pits below the elevator shaft so that the piston could draw completely back. The higher the building was, the deeper the pit had to be.  An alternate design was the cable system, in which ropes raised and lowered the car by means of a pulley and gear system with a counterweight raised and lowered at the same time.  These types of elevators, powered by water pressure or steam, were found to be easier to control and didn’t need the extra room required by hydraulic systems. However, there were serious safety concerns. The ropes could break, plummeting the elevator to the bottom of the shaft.  Freight could be damaged, and workers killed.  

An early hydraulic elevator

Inventor Elisha Graves Otis and his sons concentrated on making the rope and pulley system safer. They came up with a design that employed a safety feature; a wooden frame at the top of the platform that would snap out against the sides of the elevator shaft if the ropes broke. Otis called it the “safety hoist” and dramatically demonstrated it at the 1853 Exhibition of All Nations, in New York City.  

Perched on a hoisting platform high above the ground at the Crystal Palace, he shocked the crowd when he cut the only rope suspending the platform on which he was standing. The platform dropped a few inches, but then came to a stop. His revolutionary new safety brake had worked, stopping the platform from crashing to the ground.

In 1859, Otis Tufts patented the first elevator specifically for passenger use. He described his invention as “an elevator for the conveyance of persons from the different stories of hotels, public buildings and even private residences.” His design had benches inside an enclosed capsule, with doors that opened and closed automatically.  As an alternative to the rope and pulley system, he came up with an entirely different concept of a nut threading up and down a screw. The elevator car was the nut, threaded onto a giant steel screw that extended the entire length of the shaft. As it slowly rotated, the car moved up and down the shaft. Tufts’ system was installed in New York’s seven-story Fifth Avenue Hotel and operated for 15 years without incident. It was very safe, but also proved to be far too expensive for widespread use.

Fifth Avenue Hotel circa 1860

Elisha Otis’s initial 1861 patent was for a freight elevator. But his successful demonstration at the fair enabled him to expand his Otis Brothers Elevator Company.  The company’s continued improvements in elevator safety and efficiency caused them to eventually dominate the industry.  By 1873 there were 2,000 Otis elevators in use, and Otis Elevator Company is still known today as the world’s largest elevator manufacturer.  Commissions include the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the Flatiron Building and the original Woolworth Building, which, at that time, was the world’s tallest. In 1967, Otis Elevator installed all 255 elevators and 71 escalators in the World Trade Center. Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, is equipped with 57 Otis elevators.

Mid- 19th century elevator

Although many elevator improvements have been made, including the switch to electric power in the 1880s, the basic cable mechanism has remained the same for centuries. This could change in the very near future. The Mobility Pavilion at EXPO 2020 will feature the newest development in elevator technology: electromagnetic field elevators, in other words, elevators without any cables at all!

Joan Thompson, Expo Sales Executive
Ya’lla Tours USA

Posted on December 13, 2019

3 Responses
  1. Have you seen the Otis Elevator installation (from 1900?) at the “Smith Tower” in Seattle? The beautiful electric drive-motor for it is on display there, fully functioning . . . your other pictures of Otis Elevators do not show the power-system of it.

    1. Kyna

      Thanks for reading, and for your input. I would have loved to include photos of the mechanism, but I have to be very careful of the photos I use, due to copyright laws. There were none available for sharing on this type of commercial platform.

  2. Brian

    I work in the construction industry. And get a lot of behind the scenes views of old innovative products that are still in use today. A lot of the old buildings in Pittsburgh PA still use the old original motors that are running their elevators. If it’s not broke don’t fix it.