Life of Elisha Otis

Mankind has used hoisted platforms to move materials since ancient times, but the ever present danger of the rope or cable snapping prevented the widespread use of such devices to transport people. This was the case until the nineteenth century when the serial inventor Elisha Graves Otis and his sons, Charles and Norton, developed an automatic safety system. Born in August 1811 in Halifax, Vermont, Elisha Otis left home at nineteen years of age. He spent five years working as a wagon driver before moving to the Vermont Hills with his wife and young son. There he designed and built a gristmill, which he later converted into a sawmill. A lack of customers resulted in him turning his hand to vehicle manufacture.

Following the death of his wife, he remarried and set off with his two sons to start a new life in Albany, New York. He worked at a bedstead factory where he developed and patented a machine for turning the bedstead rails. He received a $500 bonus from his employers that he invested in his own engineering business. When the city of Albany redirected the stream from which he drew power, he moved to Bergen City, New Jersey, and worked as a mechanic. He then relocated to Yonkers, New York, where he took over management of an old sawmill that he intended to convert to a bedstead factory.

Otis realised that he needed to lift the debris out of the building, but he was concerned about the reliability of hoisted platforms. Along with his sons, he designed and tested a ‘safety elevator’. They passed a rope through a sprung mechanism, which would be released if the rope broke pushing into toothed guide rails on either side of the lift, holding it in place. They founded the Union Elevator and General Machine Works Company to market their invention.

Otis made first public display of his elevator at the 1853 Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in New York. He stood on the elevator which was drawn upwards whereupon he took an axe and severed the rope from which the elevator hung. The crowd gasped as the platform fell a few inches before being held in position by his device.

Otis received a succession of orders for his elevators over the following years, but only to transport goods. He finally received the contract to install a passenger elevator in the five-story E. V. Haughwout Building that was under construction at the corner of Broome Street and Broadway. The elevator cost $300, making its first journey on 23rd March 1857.

Elisha Otis continued to invent new devices until April 1861 when he died of diphtheria. The company he founded went from strength-to-strength under his sons’ management. Their company installed Otis elevators in some of the most famous structures in the world including the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building.