Elisha Otis—
Man of Many Ups and Downs

By Jean Maxwell-Worthington

Print Share

    Thou shalt surely help … to lift them up (Deut. 22:4).

    “Papa is ready!” cried young Charles Otis. “We must gather as many people as we can.” The people to be gathered were spectators at the 1854 Crystal Palace Exhibition being held in New York City.

    Norton nodded shyly. He was content to follow his older brother, who barked louder than all the other vendors. Soon they had gathered a curious crowd in front of their father’s “safety hoist.”

    Slowly a rope lifted Otis, atop a platform, 40′ (12 m) into the air, then stopped. As a hush fell over the crowd, another assistant leaned over from a high scaffold and began sawing vigorously on the hoisting rope! As the frayed ends parted, there was a collective gasp, and everyone scrambled backward to avoid the expected crash.

    Miraculously, the elevator platform, with Otis still aboard, remained suspended, secured by Otis’s safety device. As Elisha doffed his hat, his aerial assistant was already attaching a new rope to the hoist. When it was securely fastened, the hoist glided down safely to the exhibition floor. At long last, the world had witnessed a safe passenger lift!

    Although Otis is considered to be the father of the modern elevator, the idea itself is an old one. A primitive version of what might be called an elevator was built by Archimedes before 230 B.C. As early as the sixth century A.D., a crude form of lift with pulleys and weights was used to hoist supplies in a monastery. Leonardo da Vinci (A.D. 1452–1519) is sometimes credited with the actual invention of the elevator. His creation was an apparatus—looking much like a delicate birdcage—that was installed in the Milan Cathedral. The “cage” is still uncovered once a year to celebrate its historic climb from street level to the cathedral roof.

    Elisha Graves Otis was born in 1811 in Halifax, Vermont. As a boy, he used his inventive genius to fashion or fix things that were needed around his father’s farm. After Elisha married and became the father of two sons, he left the farm and settled his family in Brattleboro, Vermont. Otis was a good craftsman, but his poor health forced him to change jobs often. By the time he was forty years old, he had been a builder, a carriage maker, a hauler, an operator of sawmills and machine shops, and a factory mechanic.

    During the early 1850s, Otis supervised the construction of a bedstead factory in Yonkers, New York. It was here that he devised the first safe elevator to move the heavy equipment and furniture from floor to floor.

    Despite his demonstration of its safety at the Crystal Palace Exhibit, the idea of passenger elevators was slow to catch on. Desperate for money to support his family, Elisha was considering joining the last of the California Gold Rush. Then he received a request for two lifts. Soon he and his sons were busy manufacturing elevators.

    Hotel owners were the first to see the advantage of elevators. Guests were reluctant to walk or carry their heavy luggage up more than one flight of stairs. With the coming of the elevator, hotel owners could charge the same price for all rooms—and even higher rates for upper floors where certain rooms had scenic views. In 1857 the first practical passenger elevator was installed in a five-story mercantile building in New York City.

    After the Civil War in the United States, large cities began to fill with people from rural areas who were searching for work. European immigrants also flooded the city centers. Because good office and factory space was limited, real estate prices sky-rocketed. Men with vision saw a way to conserve space by building upward.

    Until he died in 1861, Otis was constantly making improvements. The hand-powered lift was already becoming obsolete, so Otis set to work to improve his steam-powered elevator.

    Charles Otis inherited his father’s genius. He was an excellent engineer and an imaginative innovator. By the late 1880s, hydraulic and steam-powered elevators had been largely replaced with faster and more efficient electric elevators. In 1889, an Otis-designed elevator captured the imagination of a Paris exhibition crowd when it carried fifty awestruck passengers 984′ (300 m) to the top of the Eiffel Tower and down again.

    Although the Otis brothers made many improvements on their father’s invention, they would be astonished at today’s fast, sleek, automatic elevators believed to be capable of lifting passengers at least 180 stories into the sky. What a fitting tribute to Elisha Otis, a man of many ups and downs!