The Intriguing History of the Elevator
Thursday, 25 March 2021

While many people consider the elevator to be a relatively new invention, actually its roots can be traced back to ancient times—as far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans. Indeed, the famed Greek mathematician, Archimedes, built a basic elevator as early as 236 B.C. involving a primitive system of ropes and a drum.

While most Hollywood blockbusters don’t exactly stick to accurate details, if you watch the film Gladiator, you’ll also see animals and fighters brought to the surface on elevators. These details are based on the vast network of underground tunnels at the Colosseum in Rome, where teams of men would safely transport the wild animals via a system of basic elevators operated with winches.

A familiar concept—but still human-powered

 
France’s Louis XV also used elevator technology of a kind to allow one of his mistresses to get to her private accommodation in the Palace of Versailles. At the time, this tech was somewhat cutely referred to as a “flying chair”—evidently a name that worked better then than now.
 
Louis XV was clearly somewhat fond of this invention as he also built a similar system to allow him and his invited guests to eat with being disturbed by his servants. The idea was crude in design but effective in practice—on ringing a bell, a table would rise from the floor into the dining quarters from the kitchen facilities below. The table would already be laid with cutlery and food—an early form of the elevator designed purely for the purposes of entertaining in private.
 

The progression to more familiar elevator-type designs

 
While these early designs were efficient, they still relied on human exertion to raise or lower the platform—not particularly what we would today think of as an “elevator.” It would take until the mid-1800s before water- or steam-powered elevators would become available, providing automated movement. Nonetheless, the systems were largely viewed with caution and dubiety as the ropes were prone to wearing out or breaking, making them largely unsuitable for human transportation.
 

The popularization of elevators through safe technology

 
Fears of elevators were finally allayed in 1852 with the invention of a simple—yet incredibly effective—technology by Elisha Graves Otis. Otis’ system triggered a spring, which would release pawls (a type of mechanical component that locks with another component to prevent movement in one direction—or stop movement altogether) on the cabin of the elevator, thereby preventing it from dropping.
 
This seemingly small, innocuous invention would revolutionize the industry forever and lead to the popularization of the elevator. Similar designs are still seen today, such as in the ATIS elevator range.
 

One small invention that would go on to change the skyline of the world

 
The first human passenger version of Otis’ system was installed in 1857 in a five-floor department store in downtown New York City. From there, the rest is, as they say, history. In a very real sense, this apparently small invention would revolutionize not just elevator technology, but would also come to change the world’s skylines. Just try to imagine the concept of a skyscraper without an elevator. When you do, it’s clear to see how much elevators have changed our modern way of life.
 
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