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The Elevators We Ride Today Started as a Magic Trick

Otis’s invention that drew screams and cries.

Chris Dent

Without elevators, cities wouldn’t exist as they do today. And without safety elevators, most people would never get on one. The first safety elevator — which, in the event of the cable breaking, prevents the car from falling by automatically catching said cable — was engineered by an American named Elisha Otis, and despite the clairvoyant importance of his invention, it was a hard sell in the mid-1800s. The below excerpt, titled “‘All Safe, Ladies and Gentlemen, All Safe’: Mr Otis’s Safety Elevator,” is taken from America the Ingenious: How a Nation of Dreamers, Immigrants, and Tinkerers Changed the World, and tells the short story of Elisha Graves Otis’s life, and his many inventions, including the one that ultimately led him to awe audiences at the world’s fair with his up-and-down machine.
Tucker Bowe

Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is from America the Ingenious by Kevin Baker (Artisan Books). Copyright ©2016. Illustrations by Chris Dent. The book is due out this October.

Sometimes it’s the little things, the things we barely notice, that make much greater accomplishments possible. Combined, as it would be in the next generation, with those two other miraculous American inventions — the electric light and steel-frame construction — the safety elevator would make the skyscraper, and thus the modern city, possible. All thanks to one man’s enduring faith.

He was, in many ways, the American Job, though many a frustrated inventor might have claimed the title. Like Job, Elisha Graves Otis was a pious, industrious man, respected by his friends and neighbors in rural Vermont; they would make him justice of the peace and elect him to the state legislature four times. He had left high school before graduating, as most Americans did in 1830, but, as his son would write, he “had no taste for a farmer’s life.” He drove a wagon instead, then started a gristmill, married a local young woman and had two sons with her, and built them all a house.

Then God started to test him, or so it must have seemed. The gristmill failed. Elisha turned it into a sawmill, but that failed, too. His wife died, leaving him with boys ages seven and two. Working in the bitter cold to make ends meet, Otis caught pneumonia and nearly perished as well. He married again and moved to Albany, New York, where he went to work in a bedstead company and invented a machine for turning out bed rails (sides) that enabled the company to increase its production from twelve beds a day to fifty. Rewarded with a $500 bonus, Otis started his own bedstead company, using a water-powered turbine he invented himself. Then the city of Albany diverted his water source, and his factory died. He tried to manufacture wooden carts, but that enterprise failed, too.

Freight elevators had existed since ancient times. Louis XV had even had a “flying chair” installed at Versailles, and steam-powered hoists, invented in England in the 1830s, were a common sight in America.

He invented a rotating, automatic bread oven; a steam plow; a new brake to let engineers stop locomotives faster. If one thing didn’t work out, Elisha Otis remained mystifyingly confident something else would.

“He could invent, design, and construct a perfect working machine or improve anything to which he gave his mind, without recourse to any of the modern drafting methods,” marveled his more practical-minded older son, Charles, whom he often drove to distraction. “He needed no assistance, asked no advice, consulted with no one, and never made much use of pen or pencil.”

Moving on to Yonkers, Elisha made the great discovery of his life when he was hired to turn one more sawmill into one more bedstead factory. Looking to move some heavy debris to an upper story of the building, he constructed a hoist, or “elevator.” This was nothing new. Freight elevators had existed since ancient times. Louis XV had even had a “flying chair” installed at Versailles, and steam-powered hoists, invented in England in the 1830s, were a common sight in America.

What Elisha Otis did that was new was to make it safe. He cut notches all along the wooden guide rails, or “shaft,” of his hoist, then ran the hoist’s ropes through a pair of springs he had screwed into the bottom of the elevator platform — a design probably inspired by the wagon brakes he had worked with years before. If the rope was cut, or broke, the spring opened and caught on the notches, stopping the elevator almost instantly.

There were already safety devices on some freight elevators, but these were usually rotating pinions, round gears that had to be worked by hand. Otis’s safety brake did not depend on human reaction time.

He quickly sold three of his “automatics” to local merchants at $300 apiece. Then sales dried up. And his latest factory went belly up. Benjamin Newhouse, a furniture maker who’d bought Otis’s first elevator, gave him a space at his Yonkers plant to build more. There Otis worked away with just some vises, a drill press, a forge, a used lathe, and a three-horsepower steam engine, distracted by the other inventions swirling in his head, doodling pious little maxims to himself. There were still no sales, and Otis at last seriously contemplated what Americans do when things go bad, which was to pull up stakes and head west.

He was detained by “the Prince of Humbugs” (God works in mysterious ways). P. T. Barnum needed a new attraction for the world’s fair he had taken charge of in New York’s grand Crystal Palace on Forty-Second Street. Otis, amazingly enough, proved a natural showman. Dressed formally in a burgundy topcoat with velvet lapels and his constant stovepipe hat, he would be hoisted high above the crowd on an open platform, while Barnum gravely advised those onlookers “prone to fainting” to “take out your [smelling] salts.”

Then Otis would dramatically slash the rope of his elevator with an ax or a saber, drawing screams and cries. The brakes caught at once, every time. Otis would take off his hat, bow, and announce, “All safe, ladies and gentlemen, all safe.”

After that, the orders poured in. Otis custom-built elevators for one store after another in Manhattan, including one with its own ingenious steam engine that enabled it to be almost instantly stopped or sent up or down. His grown sons chafed under his erratic direction — Charles was once forced to sign a statement pledging, “It is understood that I am not to volunteer advice or opinions concerning that part of the business not placed in my charge” — but once he was gone they would revolutionize the business, making Otis Elevator a household name around the world.

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