Otis Installs the First Passenger Elevator

The first passenger elevator, designed with a safety brake, was installed at a New York City department store, helping to usher in the building of skyscrapers and other tall buildings. In addition to the braking device, Elisha Graves Otis established an important design principle: Elevator operations did not have to depend upon central factory steam engines for motive power but could be powered independently by small steam engines that could be easily installed in stores and office buildings.

Summary of Event

The earliest elevators Mining;and elevators[Elevators] were makeshift devices used in mines and industry to lift heavy loads. Most were little more than platforms with rope-and-pulley apparatuses. When ropes frayed and broke, the platform plummeted. So long as such elevators were used primarily by employees of the firms that installed them, any fatalities aroused little concern outside the companies. Deaths caused by elevator accidents were simply workplace hazards in workplaces that were often unsafe in many other ways. Workers were considered to be consenting to risks as a course of their employment, and thus society took little action to control the proliferation of unsafe equipment in the workplace. Otis, Elisha
Skyscrapers;and elevators[Elevators]
[kw]Otis Installs the First Passenger Elevator (Mar. 23, 1857)
[kw]Installs the First Passenger Elevator, Otis (Mar. 23, 1857)
[kw]First Passenger Elevator, Otis Installs the (Mar. 23, 1857)
[kw]Passenger Elevator, Otis Installs the First (Mar. 23, 1857)
[kw]Elevator, Otis Installs the First Passenger (Mar. 23, 1857)
Otis, Elisha
Skyscrapers;and elevators[Elevators]
[g]United States;Mar. 23, 1857: Otis Installs the First Passenger Elevator[3160]
[c]Inventions;Mar. 23, 1857: Otis Installs the First Passenger Elevator[3160]
[c]Architecture;Mar. 23, 1857: Otis Installs the First Passenger Elevator[3160]
[c]Engineering;Mar. 23, 1857: Otis Installs the First Passenger Elevator[3160]
Otis, Charles
Barnum, P. T.

The loss of goods, however, and not the potential loss of life, was enough to drive the desire for a more reliable way to hoist heavy items. One method used was the hydraulic hoist, which operated on a piston principle. Because this device was supported by a water-driven piston from below, the platform could not crash down. Such devices, however, were limited to moving a few floors in height only because the plunger device had to stretch as high as the car was to be sent.

Other elevator manufacturers switched from hempen ropes to ones made from braided wire, which would be less likely to fray. George H. Fox Fox, George H. added to his elevators a lever-operated brake so an operator could halt a car’s plummet if the rope failed. The brake was not fail-safe, however, because it relied entirely upon the alertness and reaction time of an operator. If an operator were preoccupied at the time of the fall, or if he panicked, he could fail to activate the brake in time, and the elevator’s occupants would be no safer than they would be in an elevator without a braking system.

Elisha Graves Otis, an active and industrious inventor who had been working on various kinds of mechanical hoists, quickly realized that the only way to produce a truly safe elevator was to remove the operator from the braking process. The brake would have to engage automatically upon detection of a free fall and then bring the car to a halt quickly and safely. He developed a sort of spring that would be held into position by tension on the hoisting rope. If the hoisting rope were to fail, the spring would untwist and send brake shoes into notches cut in the hoist-way rails, and would then bring the car to a halt mechanically.

Otis did not immediately patent his invention, in part because he saw in it nothing unique. His rivals, however, saw the invention’s uniqueness, but Otis was able to work without piracy problems for the next several years, selling a few safety hoists to his employer and to neighboring factories. All this changed in 1853, when his employer’s business grew more shaky. For the first time, Otis began to think about manufacturing elevators as a business. His big opportunity came the following year, when P. T. Barnum Barnum, P. T. organized the New York World’s Fair New York City;World’s Fair (1853)[Worlds Fair (1853)]
World fairs;New York City on behalf of the New York Chamber of Commerce and made one of the central exhibits a working model of the safety hoist. Otis himself stood on the platform as it was raised to the top, then severed the hoisting rope to show how the platform would stop safely.

After the vivid demonstration at the World’s Fair, business quickly took off for Otis, leading him to install one elevator each month for industrial applications in factories and warehouses throughout New York City New York City;elevators in and its suburbs. On March 23, 1857, he installed his first passenger elevator at the E. V. Haughwout and Company department store Department stores;elevators on Broadway and Broome Street in New York City. The elevator was still new and somewhat confusing to customers accustomed to frequenting a large number of small specialty shops at street level. The idea of one huge store with a wide variety of merchandise on multiple levels, all accessible by a mechanical contrivance that would raise and lower customers to their desired floors, was overwhelming to many. It did not help that Otis’s early elevator was still noisy and did not move steadily, leading most customers to climb the trusty old stairs instead. By 1860, the elevator had been abandoned altogether.

Although the 1857 installation proved ultimately to be a failure, Otis had established that the operation of an elevator could be run independently from a building’s central steam engine Steam engines;and elevators[Elevators] by a small, independent steam engine that could be installed without major difficulty in a store or office building. Unlike the big prime movers in industry, Otis’s engine could be designed to run forward or backward, eliminating the complicated “shipper” mechanisms that were required to reverse the power from a factory’s central steam engine. Otis and his son Charles Otis worked steadily to make this engine smaller, quieter, and smoother in its operation, all through the period of the U.S. Civil War.

The company nearly failed when Elisha Graves Otis died suddenly during a cholera Cholera;pandemics epidemic, leaving the company heavily in debt. However, his sons Charles Otis, Charles and Norton Otis, Norton had been well acquainted with the business and were able to assume leadership roles and have the company ready for the postwar economic boom. The worker shortage that resulted from the war’s devastation was a great boon for an elevator manufacturer, particularly freight elevators. The sheer vastness of the American economy helped to drive this economic expansion, since there were no internal tariffs to discourage commerce. Before selling their product, the Otis brothers had to educate many potential customers about the function of elevators. For many years the market was primarily for freight elevators in factories and warehouses, but the Gilded Age provided a growing market for passenger elevators, particularly as the development of new construction technologies and the growing prices of downtown real estate drove office buildings ever taller.

The Gilded Age also saw the development of the term “elevator.” As long as the lifting device was used mostly for moving equipment and supplies in factories, warehouses, and the stock areas of stores, monosyllables such as “lift” and “hoist” were considered completely satisfactory. However, the words seemed awkward and proletarian to the upper classes, who rode elevators in department stores and high-rise fine hotels. Furthermore, “lift” and “hoist” both suggested downward as well as upward movement, and, by extension, reminded people of the days of broken ropes and plummeting cars, smashed to bits in basements. By contrast, a person could “elevate” upward only, so the term “elevate” served in a metaphoric sense as well. For example, one could elevate one’s tastes or speak in an elevated manner. Thus, the term “elevator” suggested sophistication as well as a reassuring emphasis on upward movement. Those Gilded Age elevators were indeed sophisticated in a design sense, too, as they often were ornately decorated little rooms complete with furniture and operated by a button-pushing, but, importantly, not brake handling, attendant in a smartly designed uniform.


The safety elevator played a significant role in allowing for the development of the modern American skyscraper, which became practical to build at ever-increasing heights. People were freed from having to climb stairs or risk their lives in rickety, unsafe elevators. Although the elevator was not the sole driver of skyscraper construction, its development was critical to the skyscraper’s expansion. Other constraints on construction, such as land prices and the sheer technological challenge of building structures so high, were lifted because of the elevator’s practicality. Furthermore, elevators would be designed so that their drive motors could generate as well as consume electricity, helping to earn their own keep.

The company Elisha Graves Otis founded has since been incorporated into United Technologies. However, the name has not vanished. There remains a good chance that a person entering an elevator will find the name “Otis” placed somewhere in that car.

Further Reading

  • Anderson, Paul, ed. Tell Me About Elevators. New York: Otis Elevator Company, 1975. A brief overview of the technology and history of the elevator, from ancient times to the second half of the twentieth century. Written especially for younger readers. Includes discussion of Otis’s 1857 elevator.
  • Goetz, Alisa, ed. Up Down Across: Elevators, Escalators, and Moving Sidewalks. London: Merrell, 2003. A large and colorful book exploring the history of elevator and escalator technology, with a large number of photographs.
  • Goodwin, Jason. Otis: Giving Rise to the Modern City. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001. A history of both the Otis Elevator Company and the social changes brought about by the elevator.
  • Gray, Lee Edward. From Ascending Rooms to Express Elevators: A History of the Passenger Elevator in the Nineteenth Century. Mobile, Ala.: Elevator World, 2002. This comprehensive work includes chapters on “Technological Origins: Freight Hoists in England and America, 1800-1860,” “Ascending Rooms and Vertical Railways: The Passenger Elevator, 1800-1860,” “New Settings and New Problems: The Elevator and the Early Skyscraper, 1870 to 1875,” and “The Amelioration of Elevator Accidents: Safety, the Public, and the Elevator Industry in the Nineteenth Century.” End notes and bibliography.
  • Landau, Sarah Bradford, and Carl W. Condit. Rise of the New York Skyscraper: 1865-1913. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996. A history of the early skyscraper.

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