From Hoist to High-Rise: Elevator History

Elevators have gone through major transformation from their time as simple lifts to the high-speed conveniences we use today. Elevators are a feat of engineering that have changed the nature of how buildings are designed as well as the way we work and move. Today, elevators are made in a variety of shapes, sizes, and capacities for many purposes, from hauling freight to giving tourists a scenic view as they ascend to an attraction on the top floor of a building.

Pre-Industrial Elevators

It can be hard to trace the elevator back to one distinct source, but it appears that the first elevator inventor was Archimedes, an ancient Greek inventor. The Roman architect Vitruvius references Archimedes’s invention in the earliest known record of elevators we have, which dates back to around 200 B.C. Later documents refer to cabs lifted by a hemp rope. These hoists were used throughout the Middle Ages and were powered by hand or pulled by animals. The hoists could carry freight and passengers.

The creation of the screw-drive mechanism was the next leap forward in elevator technology and paved the way for the modern passenger elevator. The first screw-drive elevator was built by Ivan Kulibin in 1793 to be installed in the Winter Palace in Russia.

Elevators in the Industrial Revolution

industrial elevator history

The start of the Industrial Revolution was the start of a new period in elevator history, as it led to the need for more efficient elevators to transport freight like lumber and coal. Elevators were installed in coal mines and freight yards to vastly speed up production. During this era, the elevator was first put into use for recreational purposes. A tourist attraction called “the ascending room” was installed in London to elevate passengers so they could enjoy beautiful views of the city.

The next step in the evolution of steam-driven elevators was the Teagle, invented by Frost and Stutt, which used counterweights to give the machine an extra boost of power. Roughly a decade later, the Teagle was replaced by a lift that used a hydraulic crane, which provided even more force. The manufacturing capabilities these devices offered were part of why the elevator is important to industrial-age history.

the most famous elevator inventor

Elisha Graves Otis is credited as the person who invented elevator brake mechanisms. His safety contrivance put to rest the unease surrounding elevator travel, as it prevented the cab from falling if the cable broke. Otis was born in Vermont and got his start as a master mechanic in a bedstead factory in Bergen, New Jersey. He developed his safety hoist while installing machinery at a factory in Yonkers. The device met with such success that he was able to open his own elevator shop in Yorkers. After an impressive presentation of his invention at the Crystal Palace in New York City, Otis had great success selling his elevator. The basics of his design are still used in some modern elevators today.

The Invention of the Electric Elevator

Miles' elevator

The next major advance in elevator technology was the creation of electric elevators. Werner von Siemens was a German elevator inventor who developed the first electric prototype in 1880. Frank Sprague contributed safety features such as floor control and acceleration control. These electric elevators were faster than any of their previous steam or hydraulic counterparts. Among Sprague’s accomplishments were the designs to place multiple elevators in a single shaft.

With the aid of electricity, other advancements brought elevators closer to the models we use today. Alexander Miles invented the automatic door in 1887. And after 1950, additions included emergency stop buttons, automated voice controls, and emergency telephones.

Besides just allowing for transportation of materials and the movement of people throughout large buildings, elevators have changed accessibility for people who have mobility impairments. Elevators can now be installed to fit into residential settings as well as commercial buildings of any size. The invention of the vacuum elevator in 2000 has further contributed to the accessibility of residential spaces: These air-driven elevators are able to transport wheelchairs while not taking up an excessive amount of space in the home. This technology has enabled the elderly to live at home later in life and is just one of the many reasons why the elevator is important to this day.

The Future of Elevators

Where can elevator technology go from here? The obvious answer is that engineers can always strive for faster, safer elevators with lower carbon footprints. But speculation can become pretty wild. For instance, the concept of a “space elevator” has captured the imaginations of real-life engineers as well as science-fiction writers.

The proposed idea is that an enormous cable anchored at the equator would travel all the way to a counterweight attached at the altitude of geostationary orbit. Gravity and centrifugal force would hold the cable taut for climbers to travel on by mechanical means.

The concept has most recently been researched by Google X’s Rapid Evaluation R&D team, but the project was put on hold for the time being. The most recent research into developing a space elevator involves the use of carbon nanotubes to form the cable. It’s unclear whether the space elevator will ever become a reality, but it has come to life through science-fiction works written by Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Kim Stanley Robinson, and others. Who knows what the future may hold? But it seems clear that elevators will be a part of our modern technology for many, many years to come.

A Brief History of Elevators

Click Here to Get a Quote!

Elevators are costly, so make sure you know exactly what you and your family needs before agreeing on installation. The cost of an elevator should reflect your household needs.

<< Back to Articles

There is simply no other company that can offer you all of this.

If you are looking for a customized quote or just want to ask a question, get in touch with Nationwide Lifts today to start talking to a Home Elevator expert.