History of the Elevator: Its Inventor, When the Elevator Was Invented, and Why

The Invention and History of the Elevator

When Was the Elevator Invented?

Elevators as we know them today came about around the mid-19th century, but their true origins date back much, much farther than that, before electricity, before steam, and even before the birth of Jesus. The very first mention of an elevator in recorded history can be found in the writings of Roman architect and author Marcus Vitruvius Pollio. In his records, Vitruvius attributed the birth of the elevator to Greek mathematician Archimedes in 236 B.C., making him the earliest elevator inventor. This early incarnation of the elevator worked by wrapping rope around a large drum that was turned by the hands of several people at once.

Over the following centuries, various early versions of elevators continued to pop up here and there. Of note, the Colosseum in ancient Rome boasted an incredible 25 elevators spread throughout the structure. That’s quite an impressive figure for a building constructed in 80 A.D. These elevators relied on manpower to function and could hold approximately 600 pounds.

Modern Elevators

Elevators as they are known in the modern era didn’t begin showing up until much, much later. In fact, the mid-1800s are largely considered to be when the elevator was invented. At first, the modern elevator relied on steam or water to operate and was used mostly for moving cargo, which was why the elevator was invented; the idea to move humans using elevators came later. This was in large part due to the subpar ropes used at the time, which were more prone to wear out and snap than the cable alternatives of today. People were understandably hesitant to trust their lives to these mechanisms.

The adoption of elevators as a means of moving people accelerated with the 1852 invention of the safety brake. Created by Elisha Graves Otis, often credited as the passenger elevator’s inventor, this new emergency brake system used spring-operated pawls that would press against the racks of the shaft in the event of a cable break, effectively stopping the elevator and suspending it in the air.

After Otis showcased this new technology at the 1854 World’s Fair in New York, the world was finally ready to embrace elevators as everyday tools, and the frequency of their use has been ascending ever since.