In a vertical city like New York where it’s not uncommon for people to wake up in a mid-rise apartment building before heading to work in a midtown skyscraper, it’s easy to take elevators for granted. Easy, that is, until something goes wrong with one. And when something does go wrong, it can even end up in the next day’s headlines—like in April, 2005, when deliveryman Ming Kuang Chen spent three days trapped in the elevator of a Bronx high-rise. Or like last May, when several young tourists were stuck very publicly inside the glass elevator cage at Apple’s brand new Fifth Avenue store in Manhattan.
Fortunately for nervous riders, elevator mishaps happen infrequently. According to the Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation (EESF), going by elevator is one of the safest ways to travel, with 12 million rides for every trip to the emergency room. And statistically speaking, the odds are that someone who uses an elevator every day will get trapped in one only “once in a lifetime.” That kind of reliability doesn’t happen by accident; passenger elevators have always been designed with safety in mind.
In the Beginning
We’ve been using the elevator in one form or another for thousands of years. Which isn’t too surprising, considering that at its most basic, an elevator is just a platform attached to a hoist. For most of that time, however, elevators were used chiefly to haul building materials and other heavy, unwieldy objects up and down.
It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the elevator became feasible as a means to transport people—and transport them safely. It was Elisha Graves Otis who conceived the idea for a “safety elevator.” He built the first one in 1852, demonstrating the device dramatically by instructing that the elevator’s cable should be snapped while he stood on the platform. True to its name, the safety elevator was equipped with a brake that would automatically engage if the cab started moving too fast—a vast improvement over other elevators of the day, which required occupants to scramble for a hand brake in case of accidents.
Otis first installed his elevator in 1857, placing it in the Haughwout building at 488 Broadway. Over the next 50 years, Otis and others continued to improve on his basic model. Werner von Siemens added electrical power to the elevator in 1880, making the device more efficient. The Otis Elevator Company first built a passenger elevator in a residential structure about 1890, and in 1903 they introduced the revolutionary gearless traction elevator, which would help usher in an age of skyscrapers.