The elevator, though ubiquitous, is an odd and somehow mysterious social staple. It offers not just easy vertical transport, but, whether we admit it or not, the idea of a broken-down elevator plays to some of our most primal fears: Being stuck inside a small, dark, claustrophobic box with a limited air supply—remind you of anything? Elevators offer elements of surprise and suspense, fascination, and sometimes anxiety—the plots of many movies, including The Departed, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and The Silence of the Lambs, pivot on its sliding doors. The Goldman Sachs Elevator Twitter account (@GSElevator, which posted conversations supposedly overheard in Goldman Sachs elevators) amassed 670,000 followers in three years. But the elevator as we know it first made headlines in Yonkers.
In the early 19th century, the elevator was symbolic of dirty industrialization. Workers fell off shaky open-air platforms. Cables snapped and entire cars plummeted. Gears stalled and stranded riders in midair. They were crude workhorses, oversized forklifts that grinded along dark factory floors.
Elisha Graves Otis modernized the elevator and made it beautiful. Born in 1811, Otis grew up in Halifax, Vermont, the youngest of six. An early penchant for wonder brought him to Troy, New York, where he became a wagon driver. Otis became a serial inventor with a railway safety brake, steam plow, and improved turbine wheel among the inventions to his credit. Along with his wife, Elizabeth A. Boyd, and their two sons, he settled in Yonkers in 1852 to work at Maize & Burns crafting bedsteads (bedframes that include a headboard and springs).
Realizing the company needed a better way to lift machinery, Otis started tinkering with the old lift to prevent the platform from free-falling when the rope gave way. Using steel wagon spring meshing from his driver days, he devised a spring that would catch and hold when the rope broke.
After his first commercial sale in 1853, Otis patented his new safety elevator and opened Union Elevator Works, a nod to his belief that the Union should remain whole in the impending Civil War. Each contraption sold for $300 (roughly $8,000 in today’s dollars),. The steam-powered engine and hemp cables could ascend five stories in a minute or so and lift up to 500 pounds. An early advertisement noted that, “Twelve men killed in this city (Yonkers, N.Y.) within four years with the old-kind, and not one killed or hurt with Otis’ Excelsior Elevators.”
The first model went to Benjamin Newhouse’s furniture store in Manhattan. But sales at the Yonkers showroom (307 Broadway) stayed on the ground floor.
Otis decided to bring his invention to the masses. At New York’s 1854 exposition of the Crystal Palace at the World’s Fair, Otis stood in his open-air elevator and, putting his life on the line, ordered the cable be snapped in front of a large crowd. The lift dropped and onlookers shrieked. Circus-legend P.T. Barnum stoked the drama as Otis’ machine caught and stabilized. The company sold seven more lifts in 1854 and more than a dozen in 1855.
In 1857, E.V. Haughwout & Company hired Otis to install the first commerical passenger elevator in its five-story department store. By 1862, a Newfoundland bakery brought the elevator beyond America.
But on April 8, 1861, Elisha Graves Otis died of diphtheria. The elevator was still the largely unknown brainchild of a tinkerer. It had yet to upend urban architecture and transportation. Otis’ two sons transformed the modest vision into a multi-billion dollar enterprise.
In 1867, Otis’ sons changed the company’s name to Otis Brothers & Co. and opened a $13,000 factory in Yonkers. Architects realized that the elevator could change the appeal of a building’s previously undesirable top floors. Lord & Taylor bought Otis’ elevator for its Broadway and 20th Street store in 1870. Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly boasted that the lift carried more than 10,000 people in its first three days.
As the Otis Brothers’ operation grew, so did the company’s contacts. The Empire State Building, Eiffel Tower, London Underground railway, the Moscow Kremlin, and Hungary’s Royal Palace all hired the duo.
Today, the Otis elevator ranks alongside the steel frame as the most important invention behind the skyscraper, which the elevator made possible. The Gen2 Switch elevator, the latest invention of what is now Otis Elevator Company, even delivers solar-power capability. Not a bad legacy for a tinkerer.