Passenger lift

Mechanic of bed factory invents safe vehicle

Elisha Otis (Halifax, Vermont, August 3, 1811 – Yonkers, New York, April 8, 1861)

For once in his life, modest and reclusive Elisha Otis pulled a real American stunt. That was in 1854, now more than 150 years ago. A large platform had been built in the main exhibition hall of Crystal Palace in New York.

On it were some chests and barrels, and especially a tall gentleman with a beard the size of a snow shovel. He was dressed in a jacket and had a top hat on.

Hundreds of spectators watched as the platform was raised between two poles with a steam-powered system using ropes. Ten meters high. When it was almost at the top, an assistant standing on a scaffold next to the colossus cut the ropes.

Immediately the platform hurtled down. A cry of terror rose from the crowd. But after only a few tens of centimetres, the colossus came to a gentle stop. Elisha Otis took off his top hat, like a magician after a successful trick.

He bowed slightly and shouted, "All safe, gentlemen, all safe!"

Otis had safety catches built into the sidebars. As long as the rope was carrying the platform, the pawls remained retracted. When the pull of the rope was lost, the pawls swung outward and jammed in the teeth of the vertical rails.

Primitive elevators had existed for thousands of years, but for the first time in history, no one needed to be afraid if the rope broke.

Otis was actually a man of twelve crafts and thirteen accidents. Born on a farm in Vermont, he moved to New York after his marriage as a young man, where his brother was a construction worker. He contracted severe pneumonia, nearly died and moved back to the countryside for health reasons. He built carriages, carts and carriages until seven years later, in his own words, 'the whole region was equipped'. His wife died and Otis had to return to New York with two sons aged ten and five, looking for work. He found a job as a carpenter in a factory of bed boxes. When his boss started building a new factory in 1852, Otis was given the task of organizing the workshops and installing the machines. Here he devised his safety system to hoist all kinds of material from the first to the second floor.

Just in those days the gold rush was raging in the United States, the migration to the Far West, and Otis conceived the plan to seek his fortune in San Francisco after his assignment was over. Moments later, an old-fashioned, traditional elevator in another branch of his company thundered down.

And Otis was asked to install two of his new rigs there. A neighboring company got wind of it and also placed an order. So that Otis started in 1853 on an independent basis in a small workshop without many tools and without much money.

In 1857, he installed his first passenger elevator for an upscale Broadway china shop. He was 46 at the time. He worked like crazy and four years later he was dead. Officially he died of 'a nervous breakdown in combination with diphtheria'.

His two sons made the company a great success. They built, among other things, the famous inclined lifts of the Eiffel Tower.

Otis never imagined that by the year 2010 his small firm would have approximately 64,000 employees, with 1,700 offices in 200 countries and 2.2 million elevators and escalators in operation. Annual sales $13 billion.

Otis has test towers all over the world, including in Shibayama, Japan: 27 meters underground and 154 meters above ground.

Thanks to Elisha Otis, the buildings in New York were able to reach a great height, so that the clever bed box maker from Vermont is also responsible for the skyline of all modern cities.