Elevator technology has evolved from rudimentary lifting devices driven by muscle power to complicated state-of-the-art machines that offer “smart” controls. A modern elevator uses computer integration to assess and compensate for traffic patterns, and many elevators are furnished with touch screens, air conditioning, and highly artistic designs in cabs and doors. What’s more the elevator industry has changed our culture and the way we live. In the past, upper rooms of hotels and rooming houses were considered undesirable due to the need to climb stairs carrying heavy baggage. With the advent of the passenger elevator, the penthouse suite and corner office with a sweeping view became prime real estate. In a rush to build upward, modern cities have grown into booming centers of commerce and culture. Mankind has come a long way, in the never-ceasing endeavor to accomplish a given task more efficiently.
Chronology of Early Lifting DevicesAs early as 236 BC, the ancient Greek mathematician, Archimedes built the first known elevator. The achievement is recorded in the works of Vitruvius, a Roman author and architect who lived more than 150 years later. Ancient elevators such as Archimedes’ typically consisted of a wooden platform or box drawn by hemp ropes through a vertical open shaft and powered by men or animals operating a capstan. These devices were used primarily to lift heavy loads such as water or building materials. While the talented Archimedes is generally credited with inventing the elevator, his device and others like it were only the earliest forerunners of modern passenger elevators.
Vertical transportation technology remained much the same in subsequent centuries until Louis XV of France commissioned a device know as “the flying chair” to be installed in the Palace at Versailles. Blaise-Henri Arnoult adapted and built a design originally developed by Count de Villayer. The chair connected the apartments of the king to those of his mistress on the upper level of the palace, and was operated by pulling a cord which was connected to counterweights by way of a pulley system. Consequently, the flying chair represents the first known use of an elevator specifically for passengers.
The Industrial Revolution sparked the need to move raw materials such as coal and lumber in greater volume, just as James Watt’s invention of the steam engine in 1765 made the feat practical. At the same time, steel beam construction aided the development of high rise buildings and also allowed for the advent of the elevator shaft, which made those buildings accessible.
The textile mills became the threshold of innovation. Ever-seeking labor saving devices, they employed the steam engine to provide the force needed to complete the many tasks involved in spinning thread, and weaving cloth. One mill owner in Derbyshire, England, William Strutt designed a device which he originally referred to as a crane, but later called a teagle. In 1803, the manufacturer, Frost of Derby, began work to build the apparatus. The teagle was used to move workers and materials between floors of the mill. It was a steam-powered, belt-driven device which utilized a counterweight system, and allowed a “cradle” to be raised or lowered in a vertical shaft. Continual refinements of the mechanism led to accounts of Strutt’s teagle being published in England and America in 1835.
In Regent’s Park of London, British architects Burton and Hormer built an exhibit modeled after the Roman Pantheon. The building, called the Colosseum, was capped by a dome and featured an “ascending room” in which paying tourists could be lifted to a height of more than 120 feet for a panoramic view of the city. The lift was said to be operated by “secret machinery”.
With Sir William Armstrong’s introduction of the hydraulic crane in 1846, many factories and mines began to utilize hydraulic elevators which relied on water or oil pressure. Hydraulics were generally considered to be safer than the steam driven, cable design. However, hydraulic elevators were limited because of the need for extended pit depth. The taller the building, the deeper the pit needed to be. Thus, for many applications the cable elevators remained in use, but were not considered safe for passengers. The “cables” in use at that time were hemp ropes, which easily became frayed and could sever unexpectedly allowing the car to fall.
The Rise of the Elevator Industry in America
The elevator industry in the United States began to emerge in the mid-nineteenth century. Henry Waterman of New York City was an early manufacturer, who provided a lift for George V. Hecker and Bros. for use in their Croton Flour Mill on Cherry Street, also in NYC. While this elevator may have been built as early as the mid 1840’s, a written description of its design with diagrams appeared in 1848 in the New York Tribune. Waterman’s design included a windlass at the top of the shaft which when turned in one direction allowed the platform to be raised, and when turned in the opposite direction caused the platform to be lowered. Thus, the rope accumulated on the drum of the windlass as the platform was raised. As such, Waterman is credited with developing what is known as “standing rope control.” This design also featured a lever inside the car which was used by the operator to engage a fixed chain running the length of the shaft and which worked as a braking system. Notably, Waterman’s platform was one of the first to include a roof, since the shaft was open.
George H. Fox and Company of Boston used a design similar to Waterman’s and the teagle. However, a worm gear, similar to a screw, was used to transfer power to the hoist. The worm gear had an advantage over the standard, or spur, gears that had been used in other designs in that it did not require a brake. The friction between the worm gear and the spur gear it turned was sufficient to prevent the car from moving when power was removed. Unfortunately, this same friction caused an inefficient use of power. As much as half of the power supplied to operate the hoist was lost in overcoming friction between the gears. Fox is also credited with introducing the use of wire rope, which began to be manufactured in America in 1841 by John Roebling, to replace the hemp rope that had been used up until that time.In a daring public display, Elisha G. Otis introduced his improvements on a safety brake originally developed by Fox and Co. Otis’ safety brake utilized a spring action which engaged the brake if the platform moved at an accelerated speed, whereas Fox’s rack and pinion brake required a lever to be engaged manually. Otis demonstrated his device at the 1854 World’s Fair in New York City’s Crystal Palace by riding on the platform and intentionally allowing the rope-cable which supported it to be severed. The safety brake was widely publicized and was therefore instrumental in building public confidence in passenger elevator travel. However, the safety brake was not without its disadvantages. For instance, the empty platform had to be lowered slowly to prevent the brake from engaging unintentionally during normal use. Otis later installed the first public elevator in a department store owned by E.W. Haughtwhat and Company of Manhattan.
Otis Tufts may be better known for his work on printing machines, firefighting equipment, and the steam pile driver, but he also made a major contribution to elevator history. While his contemporaries focused on the needs of warehouses and factories, Tufts may have been the first to foresee the extensive use of elevators for solely passenger applications. His design included a fully enclosed cab fitted with benches and automatically operated doors. He received a patent in 1859 for his design which eliminated the typical rope and pulley system, and instead relied on a giant screw which ran the length of the shaft and was threaded through a channel in the car. As the screw turned the cab was raised or lowered accordingly. Tufts first concern was for the safety of passengers, and yet, his design proved to be expensive and impractical to install. Throughout the early 1860’s, Tufts received several patents for elevator designs that featured multiple cables, and improved guide rails and roller guides, features which modern elevators still employ.
As late as 1874, J.W. Meaker was inspired to alleviate lingering public skepticism and safety concerns. Meaker received a patent for automatic, counter-balanced elevator doors in 1887. The Great Fire in Chicago in 1871, led to a building frenzy in the city as well as a new interest in fire-proofing. Meaker doors were manufactured solely by the W. H. Chenowith Co. of Chicago until the patents expired.
In the late 1870’s, hydraulic elevators began to enjoy a resurgence as a result of the combined efforts of Leon Edoux of France and Sir William Armstrong of England. By demonstrating his “secure hydraulic elevator” at the Paris Exposition in 1867, Edoux unveiled the speed and stopping accuracy of his design. Armstrong solved the problem of low water levels by developing the “accumulator” to build pressure.
German inventor, Werner von Siemens designed the first electric elevator in 1880. Anton Freissler, who had first been inspired by Edoux at the Paris Exposition, built and further developed Siemens’ model. While Siemens interests lay primarily in developing electric locomotives, Freissler’s dedication was to the elevator field, and he introduced his own prototype in 1883 at the Vienna Exposition. Electric elevators proved to be fast and practical since there were no height limits and electrical power was readily available in most cities by that time. The first U.S. patent for an electric elevator was awarded to Alexander Miles in 1887.
Elevator Technology in the Modern Era
At the dawn of the twentieth century, the elevator industry saw great advances. The skyscraper and apartment house markets were booming in the 1920’s. Major landmarks such as the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building were erected in the 1930’s. During WWII many manufacturers began producing war materials, however, at war’s end the housing market surged as serviceman began to return home. The 40’s and 50’s were an era of automation in the industry. Advances included push buttons, advanced braking systems, and even primitive door scans. Many pre-war elevators were upgraded and fitted for automatic operation. In the 60’s and 70’s, magnetic inductor leveling, group controls, and advanced design roller guides became standard equipment. Early solid state control, advanced hydraulic valves and pump units, and new designs in traveling cables emerged. The later part of the century saw rapid advances in technology as integrated circuits, solid state door detector edges, LED’s, computer integrated controlers, and “smart” systems were becoming available.
As we have noted previously, much of the change in the industry over the last decade has been focused not on improvement of technology, but on shortening the replacement cycle. Many of the major manufacturers have turned to less durable, lower grade components and non-replaceable parts in a bid to increase modernization and replacement revenue. At Landmark Elevator, we don’t do business that way. Our customers’ best interests are our best interests, and we proudly offer proven technology and non-proprietary equipment. Our skilled technicians are readily equipped to assess and respond to your ever changing elevator and accessibility needs.
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