Elisha Otis did not invent the elevator but invented something perhaps more important — the elevator safety device that eventually made high-rise buildings practical.
In honor of his birthday this month, in this Learning from InvENtors post, we’re exploring Otis’ history and the innovation that changed how people move.
Elisha Otis was born on August 3, 1811, in Halifax, VT. He was the youngest of six children to Stephen Otis, Jr. and Phoebe Glynn. As a young boy, Elisha preferred hanging around the blacksmith’s forge to working on the farm. Otis’s interest in tools and in making things led him to innovate everywhere he worked. He helped his brother, Chandler, who was a builder, by designing a hoist system to transport materials two or three stories high.
He moved away from home at the age of 20, eventually settling in Troy, New York, where he lived for five years employed as a wagon driver and carpenter.
In 1834, he married Susan A. Houghton. They had two children, Charles and Norton. Later that year, Otis suffered a terrible case of pneumonia which nearly killed him, but he earned enough money to move his wife and three-year-old son Brattleboro, VT, on the Green River. Here he constructed a gristmill and sawmill. Unfortunately, business was slow, so he returned to carpentry, building wagons and carriages well-regarded for their quality. His wife later died, leaving Otis with two sons, one at that time being age 8 and the other an infant.
At 34 years old, hoping for a fresh start, he remarried and moved to Albany, New York. He was hired on as a master mechanic in the bedstead factory of O. Tingley & Company. He quickly proved his worth by inventing an automatic turner that produced bedsteads four times faster than could be done by hand. His employer gave im a $500 bonus. During this three-year stint with the company, he also invented a railway safety brake that could be controlled by the engineer.
In 1852, Otis was living in Yonkers, NY, and working for Maize & Burns, a bedstead firm that hired him to convert an abandoned sawmill into a bedstead factory. Josiah Maize needed a hoist to lift heavy equipment to the upper floor. Although hoist systems had existed since the time of ancient Romans, none of them had been safe. Otis’ inventive nature had been stimulated because of the equipment’s safety problem. Workers were reluctant to use hoists because they were regarded as unsafe and occasionally crashed to the ground if the cable broke. This new challenge motivated Otis to design and successfully test the first safety device for hoists and elevators.
He made toothed wooden guide rails to fit into opposite sides of the elevator shaft, and fitted a spring to the top of the elevator, running the hoisting cables through it. The cables still guided the elevator up and down, but if they broke, the release of tension would throw the spring mechanism outward into the notches, preventing the cabin from falling.
Otis founded the Union Elevator Works (later Otis Brothers and Company) to commercialize his invention. Business was slow, however, until Otis took advantage of an opportunity to display his invention at the 1854 New York World’s Fair. The impresario P. T. Barnum was there to hype the stunt and attract a crowd. At the New York Crystal palace (now known as Bryant Park), while standing on top of a hoist suspended high up in the air, Otis ordered the rope that was holding the platform to be cut with an axe. The heavy platform fell only a few inches before it was stopped by his safety device. Otis immediately reassured the crowd,
“All safe, ladies and gentlemen, all safe.”
This brief act of showmanship revitalized Union Elevator Works—orders came flooding in, doubling in number every year. Three years after his first public demonstration, the first steam driven public elevator was debuted at the E.V. Haughwout and Company store in Manhattan on March 23, 1857. It proved to be great success and many other stores followed them.
Not surprisingly, the invention of this type of elevator was a product of the industrial revolution, at time when manufacturers simply “had to move more product,” says Patrick Carr, who used to run the Elevator Historical Society in Queens, N.Y.
The device “transformed real estate in America,” he says,” because prior to the safe elevator coming along, the cheapest rent you could get was the top floor of the building. Now, away from animal smells and noise, it had become the most expensive.”
Otis also invented several other key elevator-related devices, including a three-way steam valve engine that provided more precise control of the elevator in motion. Other inventions in later years were a steam plow, rotary oven, and oscillating steam engine.
Otis, however, never got to see his invention in action: he died at age 49 from diptheria on April 8, 1861. This was nearly three months after the U.S. Patent Office granted this “Improved Hoisting Apparatus” a patent on Jan. 15, 1861.
His sons who had worked with their father on his inventions, took over the company and built it into a global giant. In 1870, a nine story building was made with internal structure already prepared for installment of elevators. This moment marked the starting point of mass elevator usage in USA and the world.
An Otis elevator was installed in Paris’s Eiffel Tower in 1889, and another in the Washington Monument the following year. In 1913, the Otis Company achieved a new feat by installing an elevator inside the 60-story Woolworth Building in New York City, at that time the world’s tallest building.
Today the Otis Elevator Company is the world’s largest manufacturer and maintainer of people-moving products, including elevators, escalators and moving walkways. Otis offers products and services through it’s companies in more than 200 countries and territories and maintains approximately 1.9 million elevators and escalators worldwide.