Elevators: Invention, Design, Parts & Types

Instructor: Matthew Helmer

Matt is an upcoming Ph.D. graduate and archaeologist. He has taught Anthropology, Geography, and Art History at the university level.

Elevators have enabled us to build upward thousands of feet, revolutionizing floor plans and habitable spaces. In this lesson, learn about the invention of the elevator, the nuts and bolts of the design, and different elevator types.

Elevators: How Do They Work?

If you're like me, you've always thought of elevators as being slightly magical, but also terrifying. Believe it or not, elevators are actually one of the safest forms of travel, and only one death by a falling elevator has been officially recorded. Today, elevators are a part of daily life, and many of us use them to get to our work, our living area, or shopping centers. Prototypes of elevators have been around for thousands of years. Below, we will review a bit about the most basic and early types of elevators before delving into the engineering marvels we recognize today.

Early Elevators

At its most basic level, an elevator relies on counterweights to defy gravity, achieving direct vertical lift. The earliest elevators used pulleys and either human or animal power to achieve vertical lift. One slip of a faulty rope, however, could send you plunging to your death. Therefore, early elevator-like pulley systems were mostly used for lifting building materials. The same basic pulley system elevators were used throughout most of history. In one case, King Louis XV built a human-powered lift in 1743, known as the ''Flying Chair' so that he could visit his mistresses on another floor of the Chateau de Versailles.

Invention of the Modern Elevator

Elisha Otis demonstrating his elevator at the World Fair
Elevator Safety

Just over a hundred years after King Louis' 'Flying Chair', the invention of the steam engine and the Industrial Revolution paved the way for mainstream usage of passenger elevators. The first major steam-powered elevator, which went high enough to see the skyline of London, was designed by British architect Decimus Burton and land surveyor Thomas Horner.

However, it wasn't the height of elevators that early architects strove for, but rather safety. Therefore, the person considered to be the primary inventor of the modern elevator is Elisha Otis, who made revolutionary advancements in elevator safety. Otis and his sons developed a braking system for elevators so that, if the lifting cables snapped, a wooden frame would jam into the elevator shaft, stopping the cabin from falling. Otis was so confident in his design that he actually had the ropes cut on an elevator with him inside during a demonstration at the World Fair in New York City in 1854. Otis started his own elevator company, which still exists today.

Around the same time, a different type of elevator was invented by Otis Tufts, who was of no relation to the other Otis. Tufts' elevator used interesting but impractical engineering - the elevator car acted like a screw that rotated and fit into grooves of the elevator shaft to achieve vertical lift. While Tufts' design never gained widespread popularity, he was the first to add the automatic doors of elevators we still use today. Elevator door technology was essential to prevent people from falling into the shaft. During this time, hydraulic lifts were also developed, and Tufts adapted them for use in elevators. These negated the need for ropes by using pistons and water pressure to lift the elevator car.

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