The Hoisting Apparatus That Changed America

An early Otis elevator

by Max Page
(Reprinted from the Hartford Courant)

Down on lower Broadway in Manhattan, just above Canal Street, stands a little piece of Venice. The 1857 Haughwout Building, a hulking structure just five stories tall, is modeled after the 16th-century Sansovino library near St. Mark’s Square in Venice. But beneath the historically backward, if elegant, facade was something quite revolutionary. The owner of a store selling fine China, E.V. Haughwout, hired one Elisha Graves Otis of Yonkers, N.Y., to install what became the first passenger elevator in the United States. In this modest five-story structure is hidden the invention that would make the modern city possible.

Patent No. 31,128, granted by the U.S. Patent Office on Jan. 15,1861, and on view at the University of Hartford, is for an “improved hoisting apparatus.” This simple contraption, which sounds like it might be of modest help to a farmer or workers in a factory, was in fact one of the most revolutionary inventions of the past two centuries.

New York’s skyline represents the physical revolution of the 20th century, leading the transformation of cities from horizontal, walking communities, where church steeples dominated the skyline, to dense conglomerations of skyscrapers. The characteristic image of the jagged-Peaked skyline that we all know as shorthand for “city” was made possible by Otis’ elevator.

Scholars have been battling for nearly as long as there have been skyscrapers over the key forces leading them: A desire to reach the heavens? A way to create more rental space in crowded downtowns? A way to advertise the power of corporations like Woolworth, Chrysler and Singer? No one, however, disputes that the skyscrapers could not have been built and inhabited without the elevator. Before Otis’ invention, there were buildings pushing beyond five, six and seven stories. But even the advent of cast iron and reinforced steel, which suddenly allowed builders to imagine buildings 20, 30 and 40 stories tall, would have been useless without a way of getting people to the tops of what were then known as simply “tall buildings.”

Elevators offered something more than a technological solution to a business problem. Elevators offered the average person a rapid way to ascend the heights, to give him an aerial view of the city within seconds of leaving the ground. When the Swiss architect Le Corbusier visited New York for the first time in 1935, one of the first places he wanted to visit was the Empire State Building. It was not the view of the skyscraper he wanted, but the view from it that he craved. He wanted to look down on New York from that height and imagine how he might make a new city. Robert Moses, a young parks department official, would soon find that the view from above inspired him to radically remake the city, cutting highways through the 19th-century streets. Urban renewal was impossible without this view from above.

How many of us have ever been in the Empire State Building, or in the former World Trade Center for that matter? The vast majority of people came to those buildings to ride the elevators to the top. To look down on the city. And to imagine how the city might be different. Medieval cathedrals offered a grand space to average people who lived largely in crowded, dank quarters. Our modern cathedrals – skyscrapers – offer more than anything an opportunity to leave the street and ascend toward the heavens.

And for this opportunity we owe thanks to Elisha Graves Otis and his “improved hoisting apparatus.”

Otis’ 150th year marks a unique celebration of innovation and safety that ties the past to present accomplishments.

Otis was founded in a ‘ramshackle foundry” on the Hudson River in Yonkers, N.Y, in 1853, But it wasn’t until 1854 that business became steady when Elisha Otis demonstrated the safety brake to an impressed crowd of onlookers at the World’s Fair, where “some of the wonders of American invention” were on display and marketed. Hoists, lifts, platforms and pulleys were not new and go back to Egyptian and Roman times where men sought ways to move stone for building purposes. Hoists were dangerous with the most serious accidents resulting from fraying ropes, overloaded platforms and belt failure that would cause the car or platform to plummet. So Mr. Otis’ invention was revolutionary, although nearly by accident. “Obsessed” with machinery and how to improve its function, Mr. Otis was just trying to build a machine that could safely hoist a bedding factory’s equipment His single-focused goal actually made a broad impact, “heralding the birth of the elevator industry” and “promising to make the hoist safe for the first time in 2,000 years.”

Elisha Otis at the World's Fair

P.T. Barnum, the fair’s manager and organizer, paid Mr. Otis $100 to make, instalI and demonstrate the small safety hoist as a way to boost attendance, which had slowed. The invention, for which Mr. Otis did not patent until seven years later, was such a hit that he received several orders from spectators following his World’s Fair performance. After the fair, Otis sold one elevator per month. In 1855 orders nearly doubled and then doubled again in 1856.

To commemorate the invention of the safety brake and the steady growth and longevity of Otis Elevator Company, Connecticut employees reenacted the World’s Fair exhibition at the test tower in Bristol, Conn., for 400 employees from the Farmington campus and Otis Service Center in Bloomfield, Conn. The test tower’s Ken Woronoff played the part of Mr. Otis, and World Headquarters’ Rick Fulling played the role of P.T. Barnum. Other employees volunteered to dress in 19th century costume to help set the mood. While the event was about commemorating the past, it was also about celebrating the future. A banner year for new products, Otis released the Gen21m elevator and NextStep1m escalator Employees – many for the first time – were able to ride both units during the anniversary event. Just as safety was a key focus of Mr. Otis’ business 150 years ago, it is an integral part of everything Otis Elevator Company does today. NextStep is just one example, designed with safety features, unrivaled by other escalators on the market.

Just as Mr. Otis displayed his innovation for the world to see 150 years ago, so did offices throughout North America. For the first time in 20 years, Otis offices in nearly every region invited customers to attend special road shows. Customers had the opportunity to talk with Otis employees, learn about Gen2 and NextStep and celebrate Otis’ anniversary. In the Southern Region alone, these shows were set up in 26 cities in six weeks’ time.

“It was a way for us to thank customers for their business and to show them that even 150 years later Otis is still leading the industry with its products,” said George Hertensteiner, regional sales manager, Southern Region.