Ready for a top-down history of one of the modern world’s most impressive, yet unsung, inventions? Get ready for an enlightening ride. We’re revealing the past, evolution and aesthetics of the elevator, from their earliest origins to the sleek, high-rise staples many of us take for granted today.
Who Invented the Elevator?
How was the first elevator originally made? Technically speaking, rope-and-pulley-based lifting systems have been around for millennia. There is ample recorded history of the forebears to the modern elevator, from ancient Greek texts to the countryside chateaux of French King Louis XV. Legend has it the eccentric king had a “flying chair” installed to discreetly transport mistresses to his bedchamber. Did your history teacher ever share that one?
What were elevators used for originally? The vast majority of these early vertical lifts were for transporting essential goods and materials. Many of these first elevators were unsafe for human carriage past one or two stories, primarily because the ropes they relied on were vulnerable to damage from environmental conditions. Elevators were often steam-powered starting in the mid-19th century. A man named Sir William Armstrong invented the hydraulic crane in 1846, paving the way for the use of hydraulics in elevators.
When were elevators invented? It wasn’t until 1853 that the enclosed, mechanical cab we now think of as an elevator was born. Elisha Otis gets credit for inventing this first modern elevator design. Why did Otis invent the elevator? He was an industrialist initially hired by a New York City-based bedframe company to build hoisting systems that could lift heavy machinery between its factory floors. Instead of reworking the complete design of the elevator at the time, though, Otis addressed its glaring weakness: unreliable ropes that led to catastrophic falls.
In 1853, Otis unveiled a new safety device, one that activated if an elevator’s hoisting cables or ropes failed. That same year, he patented the brake’s design and opened an elevator manufacturing company. He continued engineering safer and more efficient elevator parts and systems meant for multi-story lifts until his untimely death eight years later.
While Otis himself didn’t build the first elevator, it’s unquestioningly because of his backup safety device that contemporary elevators blossomed into what they are today. Without his 1853 “improvement in hoisting apparatus elevator brakes,” heavy-duty cargo and passenger elevators alike would not be able to perform their modern transportation functions.
The First Uses for Elevators
You may be surprised to learn what people have used elevators for throughout history.
- Ancient construction sites: Historians speculate elevator-like equipment was necessary to build some of the most awe-inspiring wonders of the ancient world, including the pyramids in Egypt and the Roman Coliseum in Italy. However, the first written record of rope-and-pulley lifts came from third-century ancient Greece, thanks to the scientist and mathematician Archimedes. Historians speculate his system used hemp ropes and a simple wooden platform cart, and relied on the strength of beasts of burden for power.
- Siege weapon: Historians have found descriptions of the Muslim-Spanish caliphates using elevator-like siege weapons around 1000 CE. Caliphate armies would hoist vertical battering rams to break down fortress walls and defense towers during their nearly three-century reign over modern-day Spain and Portugal.
- Royals’ castles: Elevators began to see more prominence in the houses of wealthy landowners during the late Middle Ages through the Late Modern Period. Nobles would have engineers install increasingly complex and multi-functional lifts in their multi-story estates. The first use was to transport essential household items between floors, and later for more elaborate needs, such as Louis XV’s “mistress” lift or the multi-passenger elevators found in the Russian tsars’ Winter Palace.
- Raw material transportation: The Industrial Revolution introduced commercialized, at-scale uses to elevator technology. The mining and lumber trades relied heavily on steam- and water-powered lifts. These machines transported raw materials from deep within coal or ore mines to the surface, as well as vertically and horizontally transported trimmed lumber and pulp across many acres. These industrial lifts would become the forebears to the modern-day freight elevator.
- Passenger lifts and platforms: An upscale New York City department store installed the first passenger elevator in 1857 to transport shoppers among its five floors. The elevator was the first commercial unit in the world to feature Elisha Otis’ safety device. People at the time considered it both a modern marvel and a public attraction, with contemporary newspaper accounts describing lines of people that would form at the store, waiting for their chance to ride this exhilarating new invention. Only 30 years later, German entrepreneur Werner von Siemens invented the first electric passenger elevator. He unveiled it at a German trade fair where it, too, received high praise and public enthusiasm.
- Low- and high-rise transportation: The 20th century saw improved electric and hydraulic elevator technology hit the market, including speed control and counterweight mechanisms creating safer, smoother rides. These advancements paralleled — if not inspired — another pinnacle invention of the period: the skyscraper. High-rise buildings we know today wouldn’t have been possible without this history of elevator technology.
What Are the Types of Elevators?
Today, there are more types and uses for elevators than at any other point in history. How many have you ridden?
- Passenger elevators: The most common and ubiquitous of all elevator types, passenger elevators carry individuals between floors of multi-story buildings. Variations of passenger elevators include high-rise express elevators, which transport riders from the ground floor to upper building levels, bypassing middle floors for a quicker ride.
- Freight elevators: Freight elevators, designed to transport heavy cargo, primarily see use in loading and unloading stations. Their dimensions and interior design prioritize this functionality over everything else, without the aesthetic touches of elevator carpet or tile flooring or wall and ceiling panels you would likely find in a traditional passenger elevator.
- Sidewalk elevators: Sidewalk elevators work as a smaller version of a freight elevator. They’re common in urban environments that require transporting goods from street deliveries to the upper levels of a high-rise building, or for delivering goods from basements straight to street loading docks.
- Vehicle elevators: Vehicle lifts are a specific type of hydraulic elevator made for vertically lifting and lowering automobiles. You’ll spot them most often at urban transportation centers, garages and even in some manufacturing environments.
- Boat lifts: Like the name suggests, boat lifts elevate or lower boats between different levels of waterways and canals. They’re an alternative to the traditional canal lock system, which must flood or drain water levels to port boats between different tiers.
- Residential elevators: Residential elevators are personal lifts typically installed in an individual’s home.
Elevator Technology and Designs
The earliest elevators were simple planks attached to a system of ropes and pulleys. The planks would vertically hoist cargo and were initially human- and animal-powered, and later by steam or water turbines.
The Industrial Revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries welcomed significant advancements for elevator design and capacities. Thanks to the technologies rooted in these eras, there are two main elevator operating systems today: the hydraulic and the traction elevator. What is the difference between traction and hydraulic elevators?
1. Hydraulic Elevators
Hydraulic elevators rely on highly pressurized hydraulic fluid — typically oil — pumped through a series of pistons and cylinders to lift and lower the elevator. The elevator cab attaches to rails in the elevator shaft, which help stabilize the cab’s overall movements, yet involve no overhead lifting or cable components.
You’ll find hydraulic elevators most often installed in buildings with 10 or fewer stories. This type of elevator operating system typically travels no more than 200 feet per minute and requires a fluid tank control room somewhere near the base of the elevator.
- Pros to hydraulic elevators: More affordable installation, larger lifting capacities and therefore better for heavy loads, hydraulic elevator shafts require less space, making them more feasible for smaller spaces.
- Cons to hydraulic elevators: Less environmentally friendly than other elevator operating systems, fluid leaks are uncommon and energy efficiency can vary based on the temperature of the fluid and its tank control room conditions.
2. Traction Elevators
Also known as cable-driven elevators, traction elevators use a harmonious system of mechanical pulleys, gears, cables and counterweights to power an elevator. How does a traction elevator work? An electric motor installed on top of the elevator unit controls the mechanical lifting gear.
Similar to the design of hydraulic elevators, the elevator cab itself sits on railed tracks within the shaft. As the electric motor runs, it spins the pulleys and gears either up or down, subsequently powering the lifting or lowering motion. Counterweights placed throughout the shaft help control lift speeds, while the railed track keeps the elevator cab and counterweights stabilized.
- Pros to traction elevators: Traditionally quieter and smoother ride, more environmentally conscious, faster traveling speeds make them more attractive for high-rise buildings with greater passenger traffic.
- Cons to traction elevators: Mechanical system requires longer installation periods and architectural allowances, plus tends to cost more. In some cases, traction elevators can be twice as expensive as a hydraulic elevator.
3. Other Elevator Mechanical Designs
Traction and hydraulic elevators make up the vast majority of elevator operating systems in use today. However, in a few specialty environments, you may stumble across a handful of other types that rely on different parts and functions.
- Pneumatic elevators: Pneumatic elevators use vacuum-like technology and hyper-condensed air pressurization turbines to lift and lower its units. Pneumatic cabs are typically much smaller than traditional passenger elevators, likely fitting only one person. For that reason, you will nearly always find them in residential environments.
- Winding drum elevators: Winding drum elevators are the older cousin of the traction elevator. This elevator type uses long steel ropes which wind and unwind around steel drums, thus resulting in their upward and downward motions. And while winding drum elevators have fallen out of use in commercial applications, you’ll still find them serving individual homes.
Elevator Designs and Evolution Over Time
The evolution of elevators is long and dynamic. We’ve seen hydraulic and traction elevator systems develop and advance rapidly over the past century, empowered by the development of the electric motor.
Among all the changes in elevator history, the following have been the most significant.
- Interior designs: Elevator designs today hold more possibilities for customization and aesthetic personalization than ever. The earliest passenger elevator designs used a partially open birdcage style, made from ornate wrought metal that allowed passengers to look outside the cab as they rode. For a higher price, they allowed various door accents and finishes, and may have even included a custom light fixture. Nowadays, contemporary elevators are nearly limitless in their interior design choices. From sleek, futuristic chrome interiors to rich, warming wood grains to even multi-patterned or photo-realistic panels, elevator interior designs are virtually limitless.
- Speed: Hand-powered passenger elevators of the past could take well over a minute to travel to the top of only a 10-plus-story building. We’ve benefited greatly from the advanced speed mechanisms developed for elevator transportation. Today, one of the main differences between traction and hydraulic elevators are their speeds. Hydraulic elevators will rarely reach speeds over 150 to 200 feet per minute, while traction elevators built with carbon-fiber components can handle ride speeds exceeding 500 feet per minute.
- Height: Yesterday’s elevators were far more constrained in terms of total height capacity. Both the materials used to build them, the safety and speed mechanisms controlling them and the powering system fueling the entire contraption caused limitations on how high cabs could reliably transport passengers. Today, elevators’ physical component restrictions hardly constrain them. Instead, architects and engineers contend mainly with the physics of lifting people to higher and higher heights at greater speeds, managing variables like air pressurization and ventilation rather than building a strong enough elevator.
- Materials: Early elevator engineers fashioned them primarily from metal-based materials, such as bronze, iron and steel. As synthetic material technology advanced in the mid-20th century, however, elevator engineers and designers had new elevator interior choices that could better blend form with function. While most elevator shafts themselves are still steel, elevator interiors consist of hundreds, if not thousands, of materials.
- Power: As described earlier, the methods for powering elevators have gone through tremendous advancements. Water- and steam-powered systems gradually gave way to electric motors, which then inspired a whole series of mechanical and engineering developments to create quicker, safer, ergonomic and economically superior elevator systems with or without electric machine rooms.
What Is the Difference Between a Lift and an Elevator?
Elevators and lifts are similar mechanisms, but not identical.
Elevators share the characteristic of a fully enclosed cab installed inside durable, also enclosed shafts. Lifts, on the other hand, do not always contain a fully enclosed cab or shaft and will look more like a plain mechanical platform.
The Impact of the Elevator
Next time you regret that decision to be health-conscious and take the stairs, take a moment to be grateful even for the choice. The invention of the elevator triggered a transformative — and often underappreciated — effect on modern life nearly all of us take for granted.
Historians, scientists and engineers agree: Without Elisha Otis’ pinnacle elevator safety device, elevators would have continued to be unsafe for passenger transport higher than one or two stories. In conjunction with material and powering developments, the elevator has singlehandedly become one of the most influential discoveries paving the way for skyscrapers and modern urban living — plus some picturesque aerial sprawls around the world.
2. Real Estate
Before the elevator, the cheapest rent would be on the top floor of buildings. The use of elevators flipped that script, transforming real estate values overnight to favor those on the penthouse level and away from the loud, dirty and often smelly streets of 19th-century cities.
Elevators represent a new chapter in accessibility for millions of people with mobility impairments. Many of us today completely overlook these machines, having never lived in a time when automatic, mechanical vertical lifts weren’t common or cost-effective. While they’re merely a convenience for some, they’re a necessity for many others, allowing us all to access spaces no matter the location.
Creative Elevator Designs for Today and Tomorrow
SnapCab is a premier provider of elevator interior remodeling and custom paneling systems. We don’t stop when things look good, though. We seek ongoing partnerships with engineers, architects and elevator installation companies to deliver the exact elevator interior you need to achieve your clients’ vision, then keep them happy ride after ride.