A Brief Look at the History of the Modern Elevator

Today, most people do not think twice about using an elevator and there are a number of uses for these devices, including not just the traditional office building elevator, but also commercial elevators. Sometimes called just a “lift” in parts of Europe and elsewhere, elevators provide a mechanism for moving people, as well as items, up and down in a building.

The first depiction of an elevator occurs in the Roman times, with some suggesting that Archimedes constructed a basic elevator around 200BC. Lifts have also been traced back to the ancient Egyptian times, as well as the medieval period, where lifts were often used to move goods around the castle. While these early prototypes were typically rope driven elevators, with a rope and pulley system used to move a small car, sometimes powered by cows or other large work animals, a few early hydraulic elevators were developed as well during the eighteen-hundreds, although these were not very efficient.

As is the case with many types of inventions, one of the biggest innovations was aimed at improving safety. This was the invention of the safety elevator, which was first demonstrated in the middle of the eighteen-hundreds by Elisha Otis, who is often considered the father of the elevator. The elevator was designed so that if the elevator should accelerate at an unnatural rate, such as if a cable or rope broke, a special stopping unit would engage, preventing the elevator from falling completely.

Up until this time, passenger elevators were not as common in businesses, in part because of safety concerns, but also technical limitations. Shorty after Otis’s live demonstration of his new and improved elevator safety system, he went on to install his first commercial hydraulic elevator in the brand new E.V. Haughwout Building in New York. Otis went on to have a very successful career building elevators and today the Otis Elevator brand is still well known and, for many in the industry, is synonymous with the passenger elevator.

There are a number of different types of elevators, but they generally fall into two basic categories, mechanical and hydraulic. The first hydraulic elevators, which were developed around the same time Otis was building his safety elevator. However, these generally relied upon a very deep hole located under the elevator shaft. The hole was required to be as deep as the elevator needed to go up, as a result making them impractical for widespread use. Instead the mechanical cable driven elevator, which often used a counter balance system to move the elevator car, would remain popular for some time. By the nineteen-seventies, however, a more efficient hydraulic elevator would be developed and today hydraulic passenger elevators are quite common in shorter buildings.

The path to a safe and efficient elevator is one that did not happen overnight, but thanks to the inventions of Elisha Otis and other pioneers in the development of the passenger elevator, they are very safe and reliable today. Elevators provide not just a quick way of moving between floors, but also a means for those who use wheelchairs or other mobility vehicles to move between floors.

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