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  • Writer's pictureMike Blaszczyk

Elevator History: Who Invented the Elevator?

Updated: May 1

When we think of elevators we think of a smooth, safe, sophisticated combination of motors and controllers and safety devices that take us effortlessly from one floor to another. But the need to move people and goods from one level to another has existed for thousands of years.


From Archimedes' simple device in 236 B.C. to Elisha Graves Otis's groundbreaking safety brake in 1854, and the electric elevators transporting us today, the story of elevators is a testament to human creativity. This exploration of elevator history will delve into the historical milestones, technological innovations, and the impact elevators have had on shaping our urban landscapes.


The Beginning of Elevator History: Ancient Foundations (236 B.C. - A.D. 476)


The roots of vertical transport can be traced back to ancient Greece, where mathematician and inventor, Archimedes, constructed the first recorded elevator in 236 B.C. (as reported by Roman architect Vitruvius).


His invention utilized hoisting ropes wound around a drum and rotated by manpower applied to a capstan.  A capstan is a machine with a vertical axle that rotates, multiplying the pulling force. This set the stage for the evolution of elevators over the centuries.


Ancient elevators, powered by humans, animals, and water, were widely used during the Roman Empire (27 B.C. to A.D. 476). At the famous Colosseum in Rome, approximately 24 elevators transported gladiators and wild animals (lions, leopards, bears, wolves, ostriches and deer) from the underground maze to the arena level 24 feet above.


Each of these elevators could transport 600 pounds, requiring eight men to operate it. Interestingly, in 2015, experts restored one of the colosseum elevators; the restoration took 15 months and cost nearly $20 million. The restoration was a gift from Providence Pictures, as part of their documentary on how events at the Colosseum worked.


Medieval Heights and Hazards: Elevator History in the Middle Ages

(476 A.D. - Mid-1400s)


In the Middle Ages, elevators could be found in castles and monasteries for defensive purposes. Nets and baskets were used for transporting people and goods to remote entrances. However, the swinging nature of these machines introduced significant dangers. During this time in elevator history, elevators became essential tools for transportation despite the potential risks to life and limb.  


Royal Whims and "Flying" Machines: Elevators in the 18th Century (1743)


The 18th century witnessed elevators becoming tools of royal convenience. King Louis XV's installation of a "flying chair" at the Palace of Versailles for discrete visits with his mistress was a whimsical yet practical application.


This “chair” consisted of a small cabin containing a rope, which relied on a system of pulleys and counterweights to move the cabin – the passenger simply pulled a rope to raise and lower the chair.


The King liked this system so much he had “flying tables” installed above the kitchen at the royal retreat of Choisy to give him privacy from his servants. The servants below loaded the table with food and then raised it up to the King’s dining room.[1] This era of elevator history highlighted the creative use of elevators to meet specific needs.


Emergence of Transportation Systems: Modern Elevators in 19th Century Innovations (1800s)


The 1800s marked a transformative period for elevators as the need for freight transport in factories and mines drove innovation. Hydraulic elevators, powered by water pressure or steam, emerged as practical solutions. The hydraulic elevator uses a piston inside a cylinder pressured by water or oil to raise or lower the elevator car.


But hydraulic elevators require a pit below the elevator shaft to accommodate the piston motion, the depth of which is directly related to the building height, making them practical only for low-rise buildings. 


Concurrently, cable elevator designs with pulley and gear systems presented a promising alternative, yet there were still many safety concerns with this design.


Cable elevators used a pulley and gear system to raise and lower the elevator car, with a counterweight to stabilize the elevator and make vertical movement easier. But this design was rarely used, as there was no safety mechanism to prevent the car from dropping to the ground if the cables broke.


Elisha Graves Otis and the Safety Revolution: Elevators in the Mid-19th Century

(1854 - 1857)


The turning point in elevator safety came with Elisha Otis's revolutionary brake invention in 1854. Unveiled at the New York World's Fair in New York City, Otis's brake ensured that elevators would halt if cables broke, preventing disastrous failures. The first elevator employing this safety mechanism was installed in 1857, marking a crucial milestone in elevator history.


A Journey Through Elevator Invention: Sketch drawing of the New York Crystal Palace in New York City circa 1853
New York Crystal Palace, location of the New York World's Fair.


Traction and Electricity: Elevators in the Late 19th to Early 20th Century


The late 19th to early 20th century witnessed the rise of traction elevators, employing ropes and pulleys for more efficient vertical movement. At the same time, the invention of electricity revolutionized the industry, paving the way for electric elevators that offered smoother rides, increased speed, and enhanced reliability. These advancements reshaped the dynamics of vertical transport and set the stage for the skyscraper era.


Elevators and Skyscrapers: Rising Together (Late 19th Century - Present)


As elevator technology advanced, it became inseparable from the rise of tall buildings and skyscrapers. Urban skylines transformed, and elevators played a pivotal role in making vertical living and working spaces not only feasible but desirable.


Without elevators, skyscrapers would not exist. The mutually beneficial relationship between elevator advancements and the construction of iconic skyscrapers defines modern cityscapes.


Types of Elevators: Modifications for Specific Needs


As urban landscapes evolved, so did the need for specialized elevators. From freight elevators for industrial settings to high-speed passenger elevators for tall office buildings, the versatility of elevator systems became a hallmark of modern construction and infrastructure, addressing specific vertical transport requirements.


Elevator Safety and Innovation: Modern-Day Technological Marvels


Modern elevators are equipped with advanced safety systems, including emergency brakes, backup power systems, and cutting-edge sensor technologies. Safety innovations have become a central focus in elevator design, ensuring not only efficient vertical transport but also the highest standards of passenger safety.


Let Metro Elevator Be Part of your Elevator’s Story


Two Metro Elevator mechanics working on the elevator car top.

Elevators have been and will continue to be the lifeblood of our modern-day cityscapes and buildings. To ensure the highest levels of safety and efficiency, it’s imperative to utilize a trusted partner for elevator maintenance and repair.


As an American-owned company for nearly 40 years, Metro Elevator specializes in all makes and models of elevator equipment. From OEMs to non-proprietary equipment, Metro Elevator employs best in-class technicians that are professionally trained and licensed by the National Elevator Industry Education Program (NEIEP) and are proud members of the International Union of Elevator Constructors (IUEC).


Metro Elevator will provide a customized maintenance plan for your building and each individual elevator, ensuring each unit is working efficiently, minimizing downtime and unnecessary costs.


In conclusion, the journey through elevator history reveals a continuous stream of innovation, from Archimedes' basic design to the sophisticated elevators of today. Elevators have not only facilitated physical movement but have also elevated our aspirations, enabling the construction of towering structures that define modern cityscapes.


As we look toward the future, the horizon of vertical transport holds promises of greater efficiency, sustainability, and integration with smart building technologies.

Metro Elevator looks forward to discussing your elevator needs with you.  Contact us today for a free consultation.

 

Mike Blaszczyk has over 10 years of industry experience and is currently President of Metro Elevator NorCal. Learn more about Mike and his team.


[1] Boisen Schmidt, Louise. “The Flying Chair.” This is Versailles, April 28, 2013, http://thisisversaillesmadame.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-flying-chair.html

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