Little Bits of History

Safety First

Posted in History by patriciahysell on March 23, 2013
Elisha Otis

Elisha Otis

March 23, 1857: Elisha Otis installs his first commercial passenger elevator. Otis invented the safety elevator while employed for others. He was a middle-aged man with a history of bad luck. He was familiar with hoisting platforms and aware of inherent flaws. He would not risk using them because if the cables broke, the platform plummeted and would damage or destroy the contents. Instead, he devised a “safety elevator” to protect his equipment. He did not think it important enough to even patent it initially. He sold 3 elevators in 1853 for $300 each ($7,400 today) and then sales dried up. Total inventory for December 31, 1953 was listed as $122.71.

Otis took his invention to the Crystal Palace Exhibition in New York City in 1854 and sales picked up; he sold 7 elevators in 1854 and 15 in 1855. He began an advertising campaign for an “improved platform elevator.” His industrial platform was useful, according to his ad, in a number of businesses and could be powered by steam, water, or even by hand. A small platform capable of lifting 500 pounds cost $350 ($8,000 today) installed and the deluxe model could lift 8,000 pounds and cost $750 ($17,000).

Before 1857, elevators were used strictly for moving commodities up and down. People needed a way to move between floors in the ever taller buildings. E.V. Haughwout Company was a six-story department store at Broadway and Broome Street in New York City. They put in the first passenger elevator and moved customers up and down at the speed of 40 feet/minute. By the 1870s there were 2,000 Otis elevators in service and both safety and efficiency increased. Suddenly, high floors became sought after real estate.

Today, Otis Elevator Company is a subsidiary of UTC (United Technologies Corporation). They are the world’s premiere company for vertical transportation systems manufacturing elevators, escalators, and moving sidewalks. They supply the world while based out of Farmington, Connecticut. They put in elevators at the Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, World Trade Center, and Petronus Twin Towers among others. They claim to carry the equivalent of the world’s total population every 9 days. They employ over 60,000 people and had a revenue of $11.885 billion in 2007.

“Otis’ Life-Saving Steam Elevators are so constructed that if the rope breaks the platform cannot fall.” – Elisha Otis, business card in 1854

“A facade of skyscrapers facing a lake and behind the facade, every type of dubiousness.” – E. M. Forster

“The City of New York is like an enormous citadel, a modern Carcassonne. Walking between the magnificent skyscrapers one feels the presence on the fringe of a howling, raging mob, a mob with empty bellies, a mob unshaven and in rags.” – Henry Miller

“The skyscraper establishes the block, the block creates the street, the street offers itself to man.” – Roland Barthes

This article first appeared at in 2010. Editor’s update: Elisha Otis was born in Halifax, Vermont in 1811. He moved away from home at age 20 and settled in Troy, New York where he worked as a wagon driver. In 1834 he nearly died from a brutal case of pneumonia. He and his small family (wife and 3-year-old son) moved to Vermont Hills where he designed and built and a gristmill, but it didn’t earn enough money to support them. So he turned it into a sawmill which was still unsuccessful. He built wagons and carriages to support his family, which included a second son. His wife died while the baby was still a toddler. He moved to New York City and went to work for a Otis Tingely as a doll maker and there invented and patented a robot turner which could produce bedsteads four times as fast as by hand. He boss gave him a bonus and he opened his own business. He died in 1861 at the age of 49 from diphtheria or his inventive mind would have kept producing wonderful gadgets.

Also on this day: The Man Who Would Be Pope – In 752, Pope Stephen was elected but he died before taking his seat.
Patrick Henry – In 1775, Patrick Henry spoke to the Virginia House of Burgesses.
Row, Row, Row your Boat – In 1889, the free Woolwich Ferry began service.

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One Response

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  1. Bobby Dias said, on March 23, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    Otis stopped the complaints of damage and death. The way some people are-they now complain about the music.

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