Born in Vermont in 1811, Elisha Otis grew up to become a ceaseless tinkerer who revolutionized city landscapes by inventing the safety brake for elevators, preventing them from falling if their cables broke.

As a young man, Otis built his own gristmill from the ground up. It did not earn enough profit, so he converted it into a sawmill. Still, the revenues were slim. Next, he began building quality wagons and carriages, which paid better but was hard work. His wife died, leaving him with an infant and an eight-year-old son. At age 34, he remarried and moved to Albany, New York. He worked for a company that manufactured bedsteads, with the four corner posts consisting of nicely carved spindles. Otis invented an automatic spindle-turner that carved bedsteads four times faster than by hand, turning out about 50 per day. For this he earned a tidy bonus.

Later he moved to Yonkers, New York, where he was put in charge of turning an abandoned sawmill into a bedstead factory. There was quite a lot of debris that he wanted to move from the lower floors to the facility’s upper floors. The factory was outfitted with a hoist, but the workers helping him refused to ride on it because it would crash to the ground whenever the ropes broke.

By now, his sons were grown, and they put their heads together to design a mechanism that would prevent the hoist from falling if the lines lifting it broke. The result was a spring-loaded ratchet that would pop out like jaws opening whenever the tension on the line went slack, engaging in a notched rack attached to the shaft wall. Otis didn’t think to patent the idea then, nor did he try to sell the idea. He didn’t even ask for a bonus from his employer for the idea.

But the lightbulb switched on when the World’s Fair came to New York City in 1853. By this time, the bedstead factory was in decline and Otis was looking for the next thing. He designed a theatrical demonstration of the efficiency of his safety brake to be performed in front of the crowds in the Crystal Palace. While standing on a hoist near the ceiling, he severed the rope holding it in place. Nothing happened; there was no crash to the ground. The safety brake worked.

At this point, Otis set up his own elevator factory, calling it Union Elevator Works. His first elevator was installed in a department store in New York City in 1857. By 1861 he had patented a steam-powered elevator. Orders doubled every year. In his spare time, he tinkered with many other inventions, including a safety brake that could stop locomotives; an automatic bread-baking oven; different types of engines; a steam-powered plow; a rotary oven; and others.

Elisha Otis died of diphtheria at the age of 49 in 1861. His two sons renamed the company Otis Brothers & Co. and turned it into what remains the biggest elevator company in the world. In 1889 Otis installed elevators in the Eiffel Tower. The following year, they tackled the Washington Monument. In 1913 the company won the contract to provide elevators for the 60-story Woolworth Building in New York City, which was the tallest building at the time. When the Empire State Building became the tallest in the world in 1930, Otis also did the elevators there. As the years passed, the company added escalators, then moving sidewalks. By the middle of the 20th century, they diversified into forklifts, trucks, cranes, and hoists.

Only once has an Otis elevator failed: when a plane crashed into the Empire State Building in 1948, severing the cables and sending the car plunging 75 floors to the basement.