Updated: Aug 15, 2021
According to the Roman architect Vitruvius, elevators have been around since about 236 BC, when Archimedes built the first primitive hoisting platform. Since then, they’ve appeared in various forms. Louis XV devised a servant-hoisted “flying chair” to connect his apartment with that of his mistress in 1743. Eighty years later, two enterprising gentlemen in built a steam-powered lift that raised tourists 121 feet into the air for a better view the London skyline.
However, it wasn’t until 1852 that Elisha Otis patented his “Life and Labor Saving Hoist Machinery” (AKA an elevator that doesn’t plummet if the cable breaks) and went on to demo it with great fanfare at the 1853-54 World’s Fair in New York City. From then on, the contraption was widely recognized and has remained the most popular short-distance urban conveyance ever since.
Current estimates suggest that there are more than twelve million elevators worldwide, with at least 62,000 in New York City alone, enough to hoist 18 percent of all the city’s residents at the same time.
The Elevator Dance
Behavioral psychologists have conducted extensive studies on how we interact with each other in elevators. Typically, if there are two people in an elevator, they tend to stand in opposite corners. If a third person enters, they form a triangle. With four people, they form a square. If a fifth person enters, that person stands in the middle of the square. If more people enter, they squeeze into any available space and tend to look down (...except in the photo below).
The seven-story Equitable Life Building, completed in 1870 in New York City, is thought to be the first office building fitted with passenger elevators.
The grand Ansonia Hotel (2109 Broadway) opened in 1904 with a rooftop farm providing milk and eggs for the hotel kitchen. A specially constructed cattle elevator was used to transport cows and other livestock to and from the roof.
Elevator music first appeared in the 1920s to calm fearful passengers who were riding in elevators for the first time.
Before elevators were used in residential buildings, apartments on the lowest floors were considered the most prestigious.
All elevators put together carry the equivalent of the Earth’s total population every 3 days.
About 50 residential buildings in NYC (and five subway stations) still have elevators operated by attendants.
Today, 85 percent of elevator panels don’t have the number 13.
Photos (from top): Elevator dial, (Possessed Photography on Unsplash); Hand-operated elevator design by the German engineer Konrad Kyeser in the mid-1400; "Elevator girl" Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon in “The Apartment," (MGM Home Entertainment); Crowded elevator car, (Elevators.com); Elevator in the Hotel Suryagarh near Jaisalmer, India, travels slowly to encourage guests to relax and sit down in comfort for the ride (Sudhagee.com).