The History of the Elevator

The elevator has threaded its way through the human experience, surviving our reactions to the physical, psychological and social challenges it posed for us, as it passed through our edifices through time.

No-one knows who first caused a human – quite possibly not the inventor – to be hoisted safely in some combination of rope and container, and such hoists were used in pits and then mines since the bronze age, but it is significant that Mr. Otis’s 19th century invention of the safety brake was the breakthrough that paved the way for the elevator’s popularity amongst people not prepared to risk their lives. This gadget noticed excess speed, and irrespective of other control requests to the machine, jammed itself enthusiastically against a rail, leading to relatively sudden but merciful deceleration. The benefit of the speed-driven process was the ability to fix things before the terrible bottom of the lift-shaft – terrible of course not only because of the revolting muck that accumulated there – was met.

The speed detector was from the same family of gadgetry as James Watts’ governor for limiting speed in steam engines, and followed on from it not many decades later.

Of course, ‘dumb waiters’ had been used centuries before in large houses, but they were never advisable for transporting people because of their ruthless tendency to ignore humans who were neither fully in nor out. A sequence of cubicles aranged together in ‘dumb waiter’ fashion, termed a ‘Pater noster’ lift, perhaps through its resemblance to a series of hooks down the line in fishing tackle of that name, was banned in he UK in the 1970’s after lethally punishing a student in a university library who didn’t time his step onto the moving platform adroitly enough.

But the social experience is an essential part of the human condition, and the lift has taken its place in our lives in ways both mundane and dramatic. Rosanne Barr compared standing in a lift with a stranger to standing alongside a stranger at a men’s urinal, and Peter Sellars as Inspector Clouseau tried hard to make his rendering of the fart in the lift the definitive one.

In other films embarrassment was replaced by menace as the lift in “Angel Heart” symbolised Johnny Angel’s descent into hell, and Hannibal Lector did something terribly clever and bloody with a lift in “The Silence of the Lambs”.

But in real life, the lift itself writes its own unbeatable horror stories. Reading a list of accidents with lifts is an unforgettable experience. Aside from the Pater noster and falling down empty lift-shafts, the most memorable categories are the old-fashioned concertina doors with their insatiable appetite for human hands, and the awful and surprisingly frequent nemesis awaiting anyone tempting fate by carrying a ladder too tall for the lift car and sticking it up through the trap door in the roof. So often, the deaths were explained by: “ladder struck by descending counterweight”.

However, a statistical case has been made that lifts are safer than stairs, and more controversially, safer even after a fire alarm, but elevators perhaps cause the most damage by tempting people to miss out on the exercise they may get from using the stairs.

The period is now receding thank goodness where the lift afforded an opportunity to display relative social standing in luxury department stores and hotels, where the wretched but outwardly cheerful attendant sat out their life in front of the buttons they pressed to allow the privileged patrons in and out. Modern life though is still subject to its impact, since a major restriction on the maximum heights of buildings is the increasing number of elevators required with increasing height, and of course the time they take. And the lift has yet to each its zenith – it may not seem like rocket science here on earth, but Arthur C. Clarke’s prediction of the space elevator still promises to offer us a form of transport more advanced than the space ship.