Who invented the elevator?

Sometimes, you really need an elevator, those stairs are too narrow to lift that sofa (and to tell me to pivot!). I always thought that the elevator was a recent invention, but I came to realize I know nothing about it. So, let’s explore the subject!

Who Created the Elevator?

First, what are we talking about? The elevator in your apartment building or the platform Romans used to lift stones to build their concrete colosseum.

Merriam-webster.com defined elevator (noun) as:

  1. one that raises or lifts something up: such as
    1. an endless belt or chain conveyor with cleats, scoops, or buckets for raising material.
    2. a cage or platform and its hoisting machinery for conveying people or things to different levels.
    3. Grain Elevator.
  2. Or a movable airfoil usually attached to the tailplane of an airplane for controlling pitch.

The primitive kind was created three centuries before Christ, and we are here to talk about the modern kind that lifts people without humans, animals, or a water wheel power. We are talking about the one invented during the 19th century.

The vertical railway elevator. — Otis Tufts

The vertical railway elevator

The first person to get a patent on an elevator was American engineer Otis Tufts in 1859. It’s almost a forgotten fact, mostly because he is better known for the invention of the steam-powered printer. He was a prolific inventor and machinist, a real pioneer in steam-powered technology—he revolutionized construction with his steam-driven pile driver.

Of course, his elevator was also steam-powered. He called it a vertical screw elevator because it was an enclosed cab propelled by a twenty-inch-wide steam-driven iron screw running through its center. His creation was not massively adopted because it was slow and costly, but it was safe. Two of those elevators were used in the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City and the Continental Hotel in Philadelphia. They were treated as curiosities but remained in service until the 1870s.

Elisha Graves Otis shows his first elevator in the Crystal Palace, New York City, 1853.

The Other Otis

Otis Tufts built the first elevator considered safe enough for passengers, but it’s another Otis who is now mostly known for his work in the elevator business. In 1853, Elisha Otis had already introduced his elevator system. What was different was the safety device at the top.

Elisha Otis’s creation was a typical freight elevator of that time, and it had a problem: broken ropes. When that happened, people died. It was hard to put people in it knowing they were not protected.

Otis Tufts’ invention was designed for people. It was safe but too expensive, and he didn’t work for the really tall buildings. For the new skyscrapers, another approach was needed.

Elisha Otis died in 1861 and his sons took over the family business and started to dominate the market with their father’s design and improved on it—it was, after all, design for the open platform kind of elevator. In 1925, the Otis Elevator Company introduced the world’s first fully automatic elevator.

Today, Elisha Otis is known as the inventor of the elevator. Its design reached widespread usage. But Otis Tufts’ invention was the first dedicated to only lifting people, and it simply didn’t take.

Also, Alexander Miles designed the first elevator that was able to open and close its own doors and elevator shaft doors.

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