Elevators are common features in buildings around the world, but most people don’t give much thought to how they work or how they came to be ubiquitous. Elevators are fascinating pieces of technology with a long history.
Primitive elevators powered by water wheels, animals, or people were invented around 300 BC. This type of elevator was used for almost 2,000 years.
The first human-powered, counter-weighted, personal elevator was built in 1743 for King Louis XV of France. It connected his apartment in Versailles to that of his mistress, Madame de Chateauroux, who lived one floor above him.
Elevator technology began to advance significantly in the 19th century. Many elevators were powered by steam and became important in the Industrial Revolution to allow people to transport heavy materials in warehouses, mines, and factories.
In 1823, two architects, Burton and Hormer, built an “ascending room” to give tourists a panoramic view of London. In 1835, Frost and Stutt, who were also architects, built the “Teagle,” a steam- and belt-driven and counter-weighted elevator, in England.
In 1846, Sir William Armstrong invented the hydraulic crane. The system was supported by a heavy piston that moved in a cylinder and was powered by oil or water pressure inside the pump. These lifts began to replace steam-powered elevators by the 1870s.
Elisha Otis, an American inventor, demonstrated a new safety device in 1853 that could prevent an elevator from crashing if a cable broke. This increased the public’s confidence in elevators. Otis created an elevator manufacturing company in 1853 and obtained a patent for a steam elevator in 1861. His invention of an elevator brake made it possible to build skyscrapers. His company began to manufacture passenger elevators in 1857. The first steam-powered elevator was installed in Manhattan in the five-store E.W. Haughtwhat & Co. store.
Electric elevators became more common in the late 19th century. German inventor Werner von Siemens created the first electric elevator in 1880. Alexander Miles patented his electric elevator in 1887.