1811, Halifax, VT
1861, Yonkers, NY
At P.T. Barnum's Traveling World's Fair in New York, Otis rode up in an elevator and then slashed the retaining ropes with a saber. As the crowds screamed in horror, Otis fell for only a second or two before reassuring them, "All safe, ladies and gentlemen, all safe."
Photos: Otis Elevator Company
A ceaseless tinkerer created the first safe elevator, then died before he could see it revolutionize architecture, cities, and the way we live.
Although the concept of a powered hoist had been around for some time, Elisha Otis designed the first elevator that could lift and lower people and cargo safely. Born to a Vermont farmer in 1811, young Elisha preferred hanging around the blacksmith's forge to working on the farm. Otis's interest in tools and in making things led him to innovate everywhere he worked. He helped his brother, Chandler, who was a builder, by designing a hoist system to transport materials two or three stories high. Working for a bed manufacturer, he built a machine that sped production by a factor of four.
Hoist systems had existed since at least the time of the ancient Romans. But none of them had been safe. Otis designed the first safe elevator when he needed to lift heavy building materials, while converting a sawmill into a factory in Yonkers, New York. He made toothed wooden guide rails to fit into opposite sides of the elevator shaft, and fitted a spring to the top of the elevator, running the hoisting cables through it. The cables still guided the elevator up and down, but if they broke, the release of tension would throw the spring mechanism outward into the notches, preventing the cabin from falling.
Building a Business
With his two sons, Otis founded the Union Elevator and General Machine Works Company. He debuted his invention at New York's Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1853. The impresario P. T. Barnum was there to hype the stunt and attract a crowd. Otis's alarming demonstration increased orders for his "hoist machines."
Otis, a compulsive tinkerer, made numerous improvements to his elevator and patented other inventions, but he never managed to run a successful business. He died in 1861, leaving his sons to run the company with better business and managerial skills. Otis's safety elevators would be used in tall landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, becoming a brand name and key component in the skyscrapers that defined modern cities.