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The Producer's Story

The Other Elevator Inventor

  • By Joseph Seamans
  • Posted 09.16.10
  • NOVA

For nearly a year, in the course of producing the NOVA documentary "Trapped in an Elevator," I've been immersed in the fascinating lore of perhaps the least appreciated—but arguably most critical—form of modern transportation. Whenever I tell people what this program is about, I often get a blank, questioning look and sometimes reactions like this: Elevators? Why? Aren't there more urgent science topics to wrestle with? What's next... Heating and air conditioning? Tires? Tanning beds?

These might actually be compelling subjects. I haven't looked into them. But elevator technology has made modern cities possible and transformed our everyday lives. Plus, there's a reason I'm drawn to elevators: My great-great-great-grandfather was Otis Tufts.

Otis Tufts portrait

Otis Tufts might be called “the father of the passenger elevator,” but he’s likely not the Otis you’re familiar with. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Joe Seamans

Many people (including a number of my relatives and possibly you) confuse Otis Tufts, if they know him at all, with Elisha Otis, the inventor of the safety brake that transformed elevators from death traps into viable transportation. Elisha is the one who founded what is now the largest elevator company in the world. It's his name that so often appears somewhere on the wall panel or the base plate of the door of your elevator.

Besides sharing a name with Elisha Otis, my great-great-great-grandfather was also an inventor. He built the first iron steamship with a double hull, which made travelling by boat a lot safer. He also invented the steam pile driver, used to install supports in building foundations. Harnessing the power of steam, Tufts' pile driver quickened the pace of building construction and may have enabled buildings to grow taller by driving their supports deeper into the earth. In 1859, Otis Tufts also patented an elevator. But most people have never heard of Otis Tufts. As a child, I occasionally heard that my "Uncle Otis" had invented the elevator, but when I'd point with pride to the "Otis" on the elevator door, my father would shake his head, "No, not that Otis. That's another Otis." In the end, I remained profoundly confused about my ancestor until I started making this program.

Elisha Otis portrait

Elisha Otis—the patriarch behind the Otis Elevator Company—conceived his invention in order to safely move freight in factories. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Joe Seamans

Two Revolutionary Machines

During my initial research, I called Lee Gray, an architectural historian at UNC Charlotte with a deep interest in elevator history. During our chat, I mentioned my connection to Otis Tufts, and Gray's reaction made me feel I was related to a rock star. I asked why Tufts was such a big deal, and he told me to get the original patent drawings from each Otis and call him back.

It took about two minutes on the Internet to locate and download the documents. I called Gray, who talked me through the differences between the two Otis designs.

According to Gray, what Elisha Otis patented in 1861 (two years after Tufts) was basically a freight elevator typical of the era—an open platform designed to haul goods up and down. What made it special was his patented safety device at the top. Without safeties, elevators were dangerous. Gray said that broken ropes were a common occurrence, causing workers to be crushed or plummet to their deaths. This invention would make working in warehouses and factories a whole lot safer.

Elisha Otis 1861 elevator

The “hoisting apparatus” that Elisha Otis patented in 1861 included a metal safety device at the top of its wooden cargo carrier. If the hoisting rope broke, the device snapped outward, locking the carrier in place. (Lee Gray and students Michelle Coval and Taemi Kim created this model based on the patent drawings.) Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Lee Gray, Professor, School of Architecture, UNC Charlotte, and his student assistants Michelle Coval and Taemi Kim

Otis Tufts' machine was quite different. Tufts describes his invention as "an elevator for the conveyance of persons from the different stories of hotels, public buildings and even private residences." His system involved an enclosed capsule with doors that could open and close automatically, protecting moving passengers from the elevator machinery in the hoistway—things that could catch clothes or body parts as people passed by. There were bench seats for people to sit on—further evidence that this elevator was designed to move people, not stuff. Tufts, Gray told me, had patented the first passenger elevator. "He gave us the concept of the modern elevator," Gray said.

In his patent description, Tufts calls his machine the "vertical railway elevator." Says Gray, "The public immediately understood that he was taking the steam engine, which was the primary power source in the mid-19th century, and applying it in a new direction." Both inventions were powered by steam. Both had safeties. But their intended purpose was different.

Otis Tufts 1895 elevator drawing

This drawing from Otis Tufts’ 1859 patent shows details of the steam-driven machinery positioned under the passenger compartment. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Joe Seamans

The Winning Technology

While Elisha Otis made an important contribution to safety in the workplace, my great-great-great-grandfather had conceived of the elevator in a completely new way: As a people-mover, the elevator could become a transformative technology. In short, Tufts "got it." Elisha Otis did not. So why, I asked, do we see the name Otis in today's elevators and not Tufts, my clever ancestor who seemed to understand what the future of elevators was all about?

Gray went on. Like Elisha Otis, Otis Tufts was concerned about safety. In his patent document, he expresses his "unconquerable dread and distrust of the principle of suspension." Instead of using breakable ropes, Tufts' elevator used the concept of a nut and bolt. The car was the nut mounted on guide rails. A giant screw extending the entire length of the hoistway was the bolt, threaded through the car. As it slowly rotated, the car moved up and down the shaft.

Otis Tufts 1895 elevator

A model of Otis Tufts’ “vertical railway elevator,” based on his patent. In the patent drawings (see enlarged image), the giant screw that threads through the passenger car is apparent. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Lee Gray, Professor, School of Architecture, UNC Charlotte, and his student assistants Michelle Coval and Taemi Kim

Tufts' system was installed in New York's Fifth Avenue Hotel in 1859, and for 15 years the elevator serviced the seven-story building without incident. It was indeed safe, but in Gray's assessment "it was far too complex, far too expensive. From a technological point of view, his solution was not very acceptable."

While Tufts understood the potential of the elevator, neither he nor Elisha Otis could possibly anticipate the way elevators would enable buildings to grow taller and taller by eliminating the need for people to climb ever more stairs. If Tufts' design was marginal for a seven-story hotel, it would become increasingly problematic as building heights increased. Ropes and later steel cables, not screws, were clearly a better solution for buildings that would evolve into skyscrapers.

Eventually, Elisha Otis' sons, Charles and Norton, took charge of their father's company. Most elevator companies manufactured other things as well, but the Otis brothers focused exclusively on elevator production and through "tireless promotion," says Gray, they came to dominate the elevator industry.

Today a portrait of Otis Tufts hangs in my parents' living room. My father, who died as I began this project, often credited his great-great-grandfather as an inspiration to pursue his own engineering career, which included being a NASA administrator during the Apollo program, president of the National Academy of Engineering, Secretary of the Air Force, the first director of the Energy Research and Development Administration (which became the Department of Energy), and Dean of Engineering at MIT. My father's lifelong identification with Tufts made Tufts an inspiration to me as well.

Documentaries don't always turn out the way they're planned, at least mine don't. I was determined to tell the story of Otis Tufts in this program, but after some soul-searching in the editing room, his story ended up on the cutting-room floor. It was painful, but he had to go. Why? One Otis, it seemed, was enough for one program. Two was one too many. Nothing personal. I just had to go with conventional history, which in this case says that the most practical technology wins. May my ancestor forgive me!

Joseph Seamans Joseph Seamans is the producer, writer, and director of "Trapped in an Elevator." His other work for NOVA has included "Car of the Future” and "The Great Robot Race,” a program about driverless vehicles competing in the DARPA Grand Challenge.

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