Our stock-standard elevator is so ubiquitous in the lives of most urbanites these days, they hardly register in our collective conscience. The elevator ride on the way to work in the morning is no more noteworthy than the cup of coffee or the smudge on the sidewalk. Which is odd, given they didn’t commonly exist a mere century and a half ago.
More than anyone else, it fell to one inventor in Yonkers, New York City, to solve the problem of climbing stairs at department stores. Elisha Otis was not the first to create what was referred to as a ‘lifting platform’, but he was the first to ensure the public that their safety was not a concern, through the invention of a special gear to prevent free-fall.
He accomplished this at the New York state fair of 1854. His spectacular method of proving the safety of his elevator was simple: stand on his platform, within a model shaft, and have an assistant slice the supporting rope with an axe. His knurled brake shoes caught the platform and fastened it securely to the shaft, after falling only a few inches. Slightly modified, this simple system is still used today.
While he didn’t live long enough to see his innovation gain much traction, the groundwork that was laid by Otis eventually made his company the most dominant in the industry. It is estimated that every 9 days, a number of people equivalent to the world’s entire population passes through one of his transport devices and building elevators.
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