Dumbwaiters Through the Ages

The modern dumbwaiter, which today usually uses electricity, has roots that date back many hundreds of years. These early dumbwaiters laid the framework for today’s electric dumbwaiter.

In ancient times, dumbwaiters were often used in large castles and other dwellings that spanned multiple levels. In castles, this allowed the servants to quickly and easily move food or other supplies around the castle. Without them, the kings food could become cold before being brought to him. Also many castles had very long and winding staircases, which made carrying anything up them both difficult and dangerous.

Typically manual dumbwaiters were used, but in some cases an animal or water power was used to lift the dumbwaiter car. Even the manual lifts made use of a pulley system, which allowed items to be sent quickly between floors, while requiring less physical effort.

By the middle of the eighteen-hundreds, the dumbwaiter was used in many businesses and homes throughout the country, but much of the innovation for these devices took place in New York. It was here during the industrial revolution that the first passenger elevator would be developed, as well as hydraulic dumbwaiters and steam powered dumbwaiters.

The father of the elevator, Elisha Otis, was responsible for many of the advances in dumbwaiter and elevator technology. While overseeing the construction of a large manufacturing plant, Otis was subjected to several dumbwaiter failures. All it took was a broken rope and the dumbwaiter would come crashing down, sometimes seriously injuring a worker or destroying supplies.

Otis set out to solve this problem and devised a spring loaded brake system. In the even of a rope failure, a set of spring powered spikes would be released. The spikes would be propelled into the dumbwaiter shaft, which would prevent it from falling. This solved his problem, so he went back to supervising the construction of the facility.

After the facility was complete, Otis was prepared to head to California to do some gold mining, when he was approached by someone who was interested in his dumbwaiter brake system. Being a shrewd businessman, Otis realized that his invention had great potential and he began manufacturing commercial dumbwaiters. Over the next thirty years, Otis would be responsible for many advances in elevator and dumbwaiter technology and eventually developed the first passenger elevator.

Otis was not the only one that led innovation during this time and together with several other inventors, the electric dumbwaiter would take shape. By the beginning of the twentieth century, electric dumbwaiters had become much more common. Although for very heavy loads, the hydraulic or steam powered dumbwaiter was usually used.

Dumbwaiters would also remain very popular in homes for much of the twentieth century. With the development of apartment buildings in large cities, like Chicago and New York, during the 1920’s, a need to easily moves goods between floors developed. This resulted in almost all buildings in large cities containing some form of manual or electric dumbwaiter.

Today, the electric dumbwaiter is very popular not only in businesses, but also in homes. Dumbwaiter kits can be used, which can be fit into most existing homes, and can be installed quickly. Custom built electric dumbwaiters are also very common, offering the advantage of better space usage and more features.

While the electric dumbwaiter is more common, some people still opt for a manual dumbwaiter. They do not offer the same convenience or lifting power that is offered by an electric dumbwaiter, but are less expensive and can be built by a handyman.

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