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Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator

Andreas Bernard

Before skyscrapers forever transformed urban landscapes, the conveyance that made them possible had to be created.

Three elevator doors in corridor of office building image from Shutterstock.com.

Before skyscrapers forever transformed urban landscapes, the conveyance that made them possible had to be created. The elevator serves as a reflection of life in modern growing cities, a space of simultaneous intimacy and anonymity, constantly in motion.

Excerpted from Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator Andreas Bernard (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2014 New York University Press. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.


The History of Technology: New York, 1854

The history of the elevator begins with a piece of theater. From May to October 1854, the mechanic Elisha Graves Otis gave repeated performances at the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in New York City, designed to demonstrate the effectiveness of a safety device he had invented. On September 20 of the previous year, Otis founded the E. G. Otis Elevator Company in Yonkers, New York. But having received only one order in his first seven months of business, he was happy to accept an invitation to introduce his apparatus to the public. In the Crystal Palace on Forty-Second Street (an imitation of the Crystal Palace built for the London World’s Fair in 1851), he installed a platform on guide rails on which he had himself hoisted into the air before the onlookers. When the platform had risen to its maximum height, to their horror, he severed its suspension cable. But instead of plunging fifty feet to the ground, the elevator stopped short after only a few inches of travel. “All safe, gentlemen, all safe,” Otis reassured the shocked fairgoers, and then explained his newly developed safety catch: a flat-leaf cart spring attached to the roof of the platform remained flexed as long as the elevator’s hoisting rope was taut, but flattened out as soon as the rope is severed, engaging notches cut into the guide rails and holding the platform in place. This experiment raised public awareness of the invention and in the following years resulted in numerous orders for freight elevators. Eventually, on March 23, 1857, the first passenger elevator was installed in the retail establishment of the New York porcelain and glass dealer Haughwout and Company.

Otis’s 1854 performance is regarded as the primal scene in the history of the elevator. In every encyclopedia article and handbook of the history of technology, as well as in individual monographs and collections of essays on the topic, this event serves as a demarcation line, dividing the predecessors from the canonical figures, the mere curiosities from the fully developed, production-ready apparatuses. It was only “by executing this stunt, before a gasping crowd, [that] Otis had heralded the birth of the elevator industry,” declared a publication about the development of the firm. At first glance, the consensus that his experiment represents a historical caesura, “one of the authentic great moments in architectural history,” stands in surprising contrast to the relatively modest scale of the innovation that Elisha Otis presented in 1854 and finally patented in January 1861, three months before his death. For the New York mechanic was by no means the inventor of the basic principle of the hoisting apparatus. His only addition to the machines already in existence was the safety device whose reliability he proved by using himself as a guinea pig.

Ground floor-elevator, E. V. Haughwout and Company,
488 –492 Broadway, New York City, August 1970.
Photograph by Cervin Robinson. From Historic American
Buildings Survey, Library of Congress.

A glance at the literature on architectural history reveals just how old the practice of vertical transport of goods and people is. In classical antiquity, hoisting devices appeared in the writings of Archimedes and Vitruvius. Isolated examples of passenger elevators also cropped up between the late seventeenth century and the early nineteenth century and are regularly mentioned in histories of technology. The Jena mathematician Erhard Weigel, for example, had a house built around 1670 in which he installed an arrangement of pulleys to convey him from one of its seven stories to another. In her final years, the ailing Austrian empress Maria Theresa would be lowered into the Crypt of the Capuchins by means of an elevator to pray at the graves of her parents. In 1804, a freight and passenger elevator was built for a six-story cotton mill in Derbyshire, and in 1830, the English diplomat Charles Greville described in his memoirs an apparatus in the palace of the Sardinian royal couple in Genoa: “For the comfort of their bodies he has a machine made like a car, which is drawn up by a chain from the bottom to the top of the house; it holds about six people, who can be at pleasure elevated to any storey, and at each landing-place there is a contrivance to let them in and out.”

Thus one wonders why the history of the elevator should rest on a single, canonical incident despite the multifarious data, a heterogeneity that only increased in the decades preceding Otis’s experiment. From the 1830s on, there was a multiplicity of well-documented elevator installations, both planned and completed, in Europe and the United States. By about 1830, freight elevators had been installed in numerous British textile factories, as one can read in the seventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. In Eu-ropean mines, moreover, the transition from hemp ropes and chains to the much greater load-bearing capacity of the iron-wire cable, invented in 1834, led to the rise of so-called rack-transport, a conveyance we can think of as the underground equivalent of a freight elevator. From then on, ore or coal was no longer hoisted to the surface in barrels dangling from a rope, but rather in multistory compartments running on guide rails and capable of carrying a large number of containers. (As we shall see, this development at first had no influence on the vertical transport of the miners themselves.) During the same period, however, there were increasing references to passenger elevators as well. The Bunker Hill Monument in Boston, a 221-foot granite obelisk erected in 1842, contains a steam-powered elevator that can carry six passengers to an observation platform. For the 1853 opening of the Exhibition of the Industry of all Nations (the very fair at which Elisha Otis would demonstrate his invention the following year), the architect James Bogardus planned a 325-foot tower whose top could be reached by a steam-powered elevator. That same year, the New York steel producer Peter Cooper had a nine-story elevator shaft added to the company’s headquarters, although the mechanism was not installed until eleven years later. And finally, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine reported in June 1853 the imminent “introduction of a steam elevator” into private homes in New York, by means of which “an indolent, or fatigued, or aristocratic person” could have himself conveyed to the upper floors.

One thing becomes clear from all these projects and installations: the dispersed and untidy beginnings of the elevator’s history cannot be easily consolidated into a unified foundational narrative. Elisha Otis’s “All safe, gentlemen, all safe” is less the “incunabular maxim of the modern passenger elevator” than a single voice in a mighty chorus of mid-nineteenth-century mechanics. So how did his 1854 experiment achieve its unparalleled status? What was so epoch-making about Elisha Otis’s invention if even a recently published official company history states that his elevator in the New York Crystal Palace followed “already existing models”: “a platform set between vertical guide rails and raised and lowered on a rope wound around an overhead drum, the drum turned by belting that looped across the factory floor to the central, continuously turning steam engine.”

Thus by 1854, both the propelling force and the mechanism itself were already well-known elements of the apparatus. The decisive difference, the detail that transformed scattered instances of the use of hoisting devices primarily for freight into the passenger elevator—an all but obligatory installation in every multistory building—consisted solely of Otis’s invention of the automatic safety catch. As one historian of the elevator put it, “Although people had been building hoists for at least two thousand years before that, their hoists had the serious fault of falling to the bottom should the lifting cable break. But Mr. Otis invented something that no one had ever seen before. He built a hoist equipped with an automatic safety device to prevent the car from falling.”

In light of the unanimous opinion that the real history of this means of conveyance begins only with Otis’s emergency brake, it is worthwhile to direct our attention to contemporary reactions to the event. In hindsight, the elevator experiment in the Crystal Palace appears to be the celebrated centerpiece of the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations. In a 1911 biographical sketch in honor of the hundredth anniversary of Elisha Otis’s birth, his son Charles Otis remarked that the demonstration had been “one of the most interesting and attractive in the Fair,” a judgment that continued to hold sway in the following decades. Even the most recent publication on the history of the Otis Company states that by the end of the fair, the demonstration had “long since eclipsed the bigger show it was part of.” Apparently, the public was already aware of the historical dimensions of the scene.

However, if one sets out to look for evidence of the demonstration in New York newspapers and magazines between May and October 1854, a different picture emerges. While the New York Times carried almost daily reports on the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations following its ceremonious reopening on May 1 (it was closed during the winter of 1853 –1854), including enthusiastic full-page articles about main attractions such as the hot air balloon ascent from the fairgrounds on June 9, not a single line was devoted to the epoch-making event in the Crystal Palace. One must comb painstakingly through the archives to find any trace whatsoever of the experiment. In its issue of June 10, 1854, in a sidebar entitled “Crystal Palace Notes,” Scientific American presented some novelties to be found in the fair’s “machine arcade.” Between appreciations of a cigar rolling machine and a whaling harpoon, mention is made of a “new and excellent platform elevator, by Mr. Otis, of Yonkers, N.Y.... It is worked by steam power, and operates like some of the elevators in cotton factories. It has a plain platform, which runs up and down on guides... It is self-acting, safe, and convenient.” There was no mention of the safety device or its spectacular demonstration. In the major American daily newspapers and magazines, the 1854 event showed up only in two marginal locations. In addition to the Scientific American article, a brief report appeared on May 30, 1854, in the New York Daily Tribune, which mentioned the daring of the inventor “who, as he rides up and down the platform occasionally cuts the rope by which it is supported.” No further contemporary traces can be found (just as there were no obituaries of Elisha Otis in 1861). Thus it is no exaggeration to say that the demonstration in the Crystal Palace, that “authentic great moment in architectural history,” went almost completely unnoticed by the public.

If one sets out to trace the contemporary perspective on the emergence of the elevator in the United States between 1850 and 1880, one is more likely to discover a different foundational narrative. Up to the beginning of the twentieth century, every account of the elevator’s history credits another mechanic with a similar-sounding name, Otis Tufts, with its invention, although he is almost forgotten today. In 1859, Tufts patented an apparatus called a “Vertical Railway” or “Vertical Screw Elevator.” It was the first to have a completely enclosed cab, propelled by a twenty-inch-wide steam-driven iron screw running through its center. In the same year, the only examples ever produced of this slow and costly but extremely safe elevator were installed in the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City and the Continental Hotel in Philadelphia. While the proprietors of the Haughwout store had Elisha Otis’s first passenger elevator of 1857 removed three years after its installation because the public refused to accept it, the two elevators built by Tufts remained in service into the 1870s and for a while transformed the hotels into overrun tourist attractions.

It is instructive to realize how definitively the earliest texts on the history of the elevator ascribed the pioneering role to the Boston inventor, hailed after his death in November 1869 as “one of the most successful inventors of the last thirty years.” In 1880, the American Architect and Building News began its extensive article “Notes on Elevators” by remarking how recently these “now indispensable conveniences” were born. “Although steam freight-hoists have been known for forty years, it is about twenty since the first passenger-elevator or ‘vertical railway,’ as it was called, was constructed by the late Otis Tufts... This cumbrous and costly apparatus kept the field to itself for some time.” Two years later, Sloane Kennedy, writing for Harper’s Monthly, made the not quite accurate claim to be the first historian of the new means of conveyance: “The story of the invention of the passenger elevator has never up to this time been told, and the present paper is therefore a new chapter in the history of inventions.” He too regarded Tufts’s role as beyond question: “It is to the brilliant genius and energy of the Boston inventor (now deceased) that the credit is due of inventing and constructing the first passenger elevator in the world driven by steam power.” The name Elisha Otis appears in Kennedy’s essay only once, in a sentence about “other early inventors and patentees of portions of elevator machinery.” His emergency brake, the decisive watershed in the canonical history of the elevator, was in 1882 still considered an inessential addition. Otis Tufts was the definitive historical figure, an opinion still held in the following decades. Thus the New York Times included the “vertical railway” (not the “elevator”) in an 1891 article on epoch-making inventions of the nineteenth century, and one of the largest elevator manufacturers in Chicago, when queried in 1903 about the early history of his product, answered, “The first elevators for use as passenger lifts, of which I have any knowledge, were the screw-elevators built by Otis Tufft [sic], of Boston, in 1859.”

Otis Elevator Company plant, main building. Photograph by Wurts
Brothers.Courtesy of the Milstein Division of United States
History, Local History and Genealogy, New York Public
Library, and the Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

We need to grope our way back to the turning point at which a figure like Otis Tufts slipped into the background and the currently accepted foundational narrative began to take hold. When and why did an experiment that for fifty years was perceived as a subsidiary anecdote at best metamorphose into an epoch-making moment? How is it that for decades, all research on the history of the elevator referred to an event for which, because of the absence of contemporary interest, there is hardly any evidence? (In fact, it was falsely dated time and time again: according to Jeannot Simmen and Uwe Drepper, Otis’s experiment took place “in the New York Crystal Palace in 1853,” and Jean Gavois also wrote that “Otis demonstrated his safety elevator... in 1853.”) Without doubt, the ex post facto valorization of this primal scene has to do first and foremost with the business interests of the world’s largest producer of elevators. From the 1870s onward, Otis Brothers and Company, the business founded by Elisha Otis’s two enterprising sons, developed into the leading manufacturer of elevators. With the founding of the Otis Elevator Company in 1898, it absorbed its fourteen leading American competitors. In addition to its monopoly of elevator production, the company was also intent on establishing historiographic hegemony over the apparatus. It is no accident that the historical account that first places the experiment in the Crystal Palace at the center of the elevator’s history was written by Elisha’s son Charles. In 1911, he declared his intention to replace the “kindly intentioned but somewhat inaccurate notices” honoring the hundredth anniversary of the worldwide enterprise’s founder with the true story. His account included a minute depiction of the demonstration that had excited so little notice in 1854 and declared it to be the birth of the passenger elevator. Otis Tufts, on the other hand, put in an appearance as a mere epigone who adopted the promising invention of Elisha Otis and wheedled the hotel owners of New York and Philadelphia into buying his shoddily constructed machines (Charles Otis mentioned a serious accident in the Continental Hotel, an incident for which no other evidence exists).

The influence of this text on the historiography of the elevator is obvious from the fact that after 1911, there was hardly a mention of the elevator’s origins that did not begin by repeating the story of the event in the Crystal Palace. At the same time Otis Tufts, whose contribution to elevator construction was by no means restricted to the exotic “Vertical Screw Elevator,” was downgraded to a transient bit player of the early years. The most important producer of the conveyance was now regarded as its inventor as well, and one can trace how this narrative was cemented in place in the course of the twentieth century—especially, of course, by the Otis Company itself, whose publications in any case constitute a considerable part of the historical literature. On the 125th anniversary of the founding of the E. G. Otis Elevator Company, the firm even printed up a facsimile newspaper with imaginary historical articles, thereby creating out of whole cloth the contemporary interest in Otis’s experiment that in truth did not exist. Under a masthead reading “New York, 1854” and in a layout reminiscent of the New York Times, one could read about a “young inventor” presenting his safety elevator “in a daring exhibition before thousands of viewers.” “This reporter noted that as the platform went up, without question, everyone in the hall stopped to see what would happen next.” This “anniversary edition” also contained a striking iconographic embellishment of the event: next to the article was an illustration that was often reproduced in subsequent years. It purported to supply an impression of the excitement in the Crystal Palace.

Illustration from Otis Elevator Company, The Otis Bulletin: Special
125th Anniversary Edition, September 20, 1978.

According to the historian of the Otis Company, this illustration was based on a sketch made during the demonstration by an artist for the New York Recorder. In all the older literature about the experiment, however (including that issued by the Otis Company itself), the event was sketched in a significantly more modest way. We are justified in assuming that the most famous and by now “official” illustration of the experiment was in fact drawn in 1978. The teeming, astonished onlookers as well as the assistant who has just severed the suspension cable are inventions of the recent past.

Illustration from Otis Elevator Company,
The First Hundred Years (New York, 1953)

It is no surprise that the largest manufacturer of a technical apparatus has an interest in retroactively claiming credit for its invention. In the course of the last hundred years, however, the stage-managed event in the Crystal Palace was so consistently and unanimously depicted as the elevator’s primal scene that there had to have been more at work in this consensus than just a public relations strategy of the company. It had to do, rather, with the question of how to construct a foundational narrative in the history of technology. If it is precisely this event among the dozens of possible candidates between 1840 and 1860 that establishes itself as the elevator’s beginning, if after half a century of neglect it still retains the power to suppress competing dates, then one has to wonder what has made it so persistent. One answer lies perhaps in the way Otis’s invention is presented. The theatricality of the demonstration (however unimpressed contemporary witnesses may have been) places this contribution to the elevator’s development above the crowd of equally important but less dramatic turning points, such as the first installation of guide rails in a factory or the first construction of a completely enclosed cab. The concentrated format of a public demonstration satisfies the yearning for a clean, unambiguous beginning, a yearning endemic to the historiography of technology. The dramaturgy of the experiment in the Crystal Palace also contributes to this outcome: Otis focused his demonstration of the innovation on a radical moment—the assumed fatal severing of the cable—and thus accommodated the interest of historians in locating the beginning in a single, visible moment. One must pay attention to the widely reproduced illustration of the experiment, drawn long after the event. It attempts to encompass precisely the historical moment: the cable has been severed, the witnesses freeze, yet the platform does not fall. Why then has the demonstration at the New York industrial exhibition established itself as the primal scene? Not because it is in fact clearly identifiable as the beginning, but rather for aesthetic reasons—because it makes the beginning tellable. Otis provides an appropriate narrative for the birth of the elevator, a classically Aristotelian narrative, in fact: the hero’s rise into the air in the Crystal Palace moves toward a literal peripeteia, a tragic reversal—until the safety catch interrupts his fall.

The epochal status of the event, at any rate, illustrates the discursive mechanisms by which the “origin of a technical fact” comes into being, to use the words of the historian of science Ludwik Fleck. In his study of syphilis research around 1900, Fleck spells out how years of collective and anonymous work on serological experiments were retroactively attributed to a single investigator. A process of countless laboratory corrections and adjustments that in the end led to the reliability of the test was transformed into a datable act, an individual invention (the “Wassermann reaction” of 1906) in order to ensure a clear historical narrative. The “straight path to knowledge,” which Fleck’s discourse analysis exposes as a fiction, is preserved by all histories of the elevator that begin in the Crystal Palace in 1854; out of the “thinking collective” of mechanics in the middle of the nineteenth century, a single name and a single event are distilled. But the closer one examines this seemingly clear distillate, the cloudier it becomes.

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