January 23: Safety First

2016/01/23 § Leave a comment

In this month in 1861  US Patent no. 31,128 was issued to Elisha Otis for his safety elevator.

Elisha Otis (1811-61) was a quintessential American inventor, one of those general tinkerers who, with a little showmanship and a little luck (to make up for lackluster business sense), founded one of the country’s longest-lasting companies.  After many failed businesses and enterprises from bread machines to oscillating engines, Otis struck upon the invention that would revolutionize the use of mechanical lifts in buildings.  It was one thing for sacks of flour to go crashing down five stories in the new-fangled five-story buildings going up in cities like New York; but people had been hesitant to climb aboard and try their with the rickety hoists.  In 1852 Otis devised a safety stop that would catch a falling elevator.  Had he lived in a more techno-enthused America (and had he maybe named it the i-Stop to increase its coolness factor), he might have had better fortunes from the start.

As it was, no one really cared, and sales were slow, or non-existent, until Otis engaged in a kind of showmanship that has done this country’s inventors proud, from Robert Fulton to Ron Popeil.  In 1854, when a World’s Fair was staged in New York, Otis set up a full-scale model to demonstrate his invention.  In great theatrical fashion, he positioned himself in the box and had a man whack its supporting cord with an axe while a gathered crowd looked on.  To their horror, astonishment, relief, and ultimate thrill, the elevator dropped only a few inches before being caught, at which point Otis dramatically cried out, “All safe!”

Immediately, orders for the gizmo began pouring in, mostly from warehouses where the people factor was still pretty low.  Three years later a brave soul decided to try moving folks in them.  On March 22, 1857, the first safety passenger elevator was installed (at 488 Broadway, the great Haughwout Building).  Within a few decades, this invention would change the look of America’s cities.  It was not steel framing that made the skyscraper possible–people have been building very tall things since the days of Cheops–; it was the elevator that made tall buildings practical.  Otis became, and remains, the largest elevator manufacturer in the world; its stamp is on the thresholds of elevators from the Kremlin and the Washington Monument to the Eiffel Tower and the Burj Khalifa.

(The actual date for this event is January 15; please forgive Clio’s focus on John Wellborn Root’s death that day.)

Hungry for more elevator history?  The Otis Company must have an in-house archivist, bless them; see a fine timeline here (put together, no doubt, by some very happy-to-be-employed American Studies major)

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