Inventor of the Safe Elevator

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Elisha Otis is described as a ceaseless tinkerer. He created the first safe elevator. Otis grew up on a Vermont farm in 1811. However the young Elisha preferred hanging around the blacksmith forge to working on the farm. His passion for tools and tinkering with inventions led him to innovate everywhere he worked. Otis made several attempts at establishing a business. However, he was chronically sick, which led to continual financial troubles. In 1845 he moved to Albany, New York where he where he work at a bedstead factory. It was here that he invented a railway safety brake, which could be controlled by the engineer, and ingenious devices to run rails for four-poster beds and to improve the operation of turbine wheels. He helped his brother design a hoist system to transport materials two to three stories high. He built a machine that sped the production time by four times.

Hoist systems had existed since the time of ancient Romans. But none of them were safe. When Otis lived in Yonkers, New York, he worked converting sawmill into a factory. It was at this time that he needed to lift heavy building materials, and he designed the first safe elevator. His intention was to create a device that would prevent the elevator from falling if the rope broke. He made toothed wooden guide rails to fit into opposite sides of the elevator shaft, and fitted a spring to the top of the elevator, running hoisting cables through it. The cables guided the elevator up and down, but if they broke, the release of tension would throw the spring mechanism outward into the notches, preventing the cabin from falling.

Otis demonstrated his invention at New York’s Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1853. Otis’s alarming demonstration increased orders for his hoist machines. This simple safety device changed the attitude of the public towards being lifted within multi-storied buildings.  Over the years Otis made several improvements to his elevator and patented other inventions, but he never managed to run a successful business. In 1857 Elisha Otis and the Otis Elevator Company began manufacturing passenger elevators. While Otis did not invent the first elevator, he did invent the brake system used in modern elevators, and his brakes made skyscrapers a practical reality. The first public elevator was installed by Otis in a five story department store owned by E.W. Haughtwhat and Company of Manhattan. Otis’s safety elevators would be used in tall landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, becoming a brand name and key component in the skyscrapers that defined modern cities.

Otis had two sons, which helped him found the Elevator Union and General Machine Works Company. He died on 1861, leaving his sons to run the business with better business skills. Elisha Otis’s sons went on to found Otis Brothers and Company in Yonkers, New York. Eventually they achieved mass production of elevators in the thousands!

Picture Source: PBS