by Janet Spencer

The world’s largest elevator company was started by Elisha Otis. Many people mistakenly believe that Otis “invented” the elevator, but he was just one cog among many. Here are a few stories of those who contributed to the elevator.


Greek mathematician Archimedes is credited with inventing the world’s first elevator. Around 236 B.C., he built a primitive elevator that operated with hoist ropes wound around a drum that was rotated by men, animals, or water to lift a platform. This was the basic method of raising heavy loads for 2,000 years.

• Excavations at the Coliseum of ancient Rome revealed a network of 24 hoists dating to around the year 80 A.D. These primitive elevators used winches and counterweights to lift animals and gladiators dramatically through hidden trap doors from the chambers below into the stadium, powered by up to 200 slaves. Each platform could raise about 600 lbs. (272 kg), a weight equal to two lions.

• King Louis XV of France commissioned the construction of a counterweighted personal elevator similar to a dumbwaiter, which was powered by his servants. Built at Versailles in 1743, its primary purpose was to ferry his mistress to his chambers from her room one floor above.


As the Industrial Revolution picked up steam, factories increasingly needed to move large loads. William Strutt, a textile mill owner in England, invented a steam-powered belt-driven lift in 1803 that used counterweights to raise and lower a container between floors. This was the basic design for freight elevators used worldwide for the next few decades.

• In 1846, Sir William Armstrong invented the first lifts powered by hydraulics, which use pressure from water or oil in a piston, powered by pumps, to raise and lower a platform or container. However, hydraulic elevators had to have pits underneath the elevator shaft so the piston had enough room to completely draw back. The taller the building and the longer the elevator, the bigger the piston and the deeper the pit. This limited the height of any building it was installed in. By the 1870s, elevators powered by hydraulics were common in warehouses, factories, and mines.

• Still, elevators were rarely used to carry people because their cables, made first of hemp rope and later of iron wire, often snapped, plunging the entire apparatus to the ground. All that changed in 1853 when Elisha Otis demonstrated his new safety brake at the World’s Fair in New York City. Otis stood atop a platform as it lifted towards the ceiling. Then he dramatically chopped the hoist cable in two with an axe. Instead of crashing catastrophically to the ground, the platform dropped a few inches before self-arresting. Otis’ invention was a spring-loaded ratchet that instantly popped out and engaged with a rack, stopping the fall the instant a cable lost tension. In 1857, the first Otis Elevator designed to carry humans was installed in the E.V. Haughwout Building in New York City. It was five stories tall and traveled at the rate of 40 feet (12 m) per minute. Otis used this invention as the foundation to build the biggest elevator company in the world.


Manhattan’s Equitable Life Building, completed in 1870, was the first building where elevators were built into the design from the beginning. It was 8 stories tall, and the elevator was installed by Otis & Company.

• The next innovation was the electrically-powered elevator, first designed by Werner von Siemens in Germany in 1880. He never filed a patent. Seven years later, inventor Alexander Miles did, adding another new invention consisting of a mechanism that automatically opened and closed the elevator doors open once the elevator cab was at the same height as the elevator doors, and would resume functioning once the doors were completely closed. Now all the pieces were in place to revolutionize the building industry.

• Between 1860 and 1900, tenement houses added floors, and five- or six-story buildings became common. Originally, the top floors had the cheapest rent because tenants had to walk up all those stairs. After the elevator became common, it became convenient and preferable to live on the highest floors with more light and a better view, far from the noise, odors, and dust of street-level living.

• By 1875, buildings regularly reached eleven stories in New York City, a limit imposed by the masonry construction common to the era. Following the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, steel frame construction gradually became the norm, allowing many more stories.

• Steel frame buildings could easily reach 50 stories, but the hydraulics system of the elevators could only reach a maximum of 20 floors. When electrically powered elevators were invented, buildings could achieve much greater heights. In the 1890s, the tallest building in the world was the Masonic Temple in Chicago, which stood 20 stories tall. By 1913, the tallest building in the world was the Woolworth Building in Manhattan at 55 stories.


The Empire State Building opened in 1931 with 102 stories and was the world’s tallest skyscraper until 1970. It had 73 elevators, which was Otis Elevator’s largest order ever.

• The speed of elevators also increased, with hydraulic elevators moving at 5 feet (1.5m)    per second, increasing to 16 feet (5m) per second with electric elevators. The elevators in the Empire State Building traveled at the speed of 20 feet (6m) per second.

• Today, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, is the tallest building in the world, with 163 floors, reaching 2,717 feet (828m). Its 57 Otis elevators move at 33 feet (10m) per second, which is fast but not the fastest.

• The world’s fastest elevator is the NexWay elevator in the Shanghai Tower in China, the second tallest building in the world. Installed in 2015 and opened in 2016, the elevator travels at 67 feet (20m) per second (46 mph/74 kph) covering 124 of the 127 floors.

• Standard elevators cannot rise more than about 1,700 feet (518m), the point at which the sheer weight of the cables is so great it causes them to fail. In super-skyscrapers, people must take two or more elevators to reach the top.

• The push-button elevator, where people controlled their own elevator, was established in the mid-1920s. This ended the careers of many elevator attendants, who has previously been responsible for operating elevators. By 1950, the “lift boy” was a thing of the past.

• The model of elevator where the opening doors disappear into the wall came on the scene shortly after World War II. Before that, doors were made of grates that folded open.

• Today there are over 1.03 million elevators in the U.S., up from 900,000 in 2007. This works out to about one elevator for every 322 citizens. Elevators are the safest mode of transportation on the planet, thanks to people like Elisha Otis and many innovators like him.