Photo above: John Brown. Courtesy National Archives. Right: Engraving of U.S. Army raid against John Brown's fort led by Robert E. Lee. Courtesy Library of Congress.
Timeline - The 1850s
Expansion and the Looming Divide
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Detail - 1857
March 23, 1857 - The first elevator is installed by Elisha Otis on Broadway in New York City.
Going up! It's a phrase that hadn't been heard much before 1854, at least as far as moving upwards safely in a building with customers was concerned. When Elisha Otis showed the world his elevator at the New York Crystal Palace, the first World's Fair in the United States in 1854, it amazed the world. And orders came in. By 1857, the first commercial elevator was installed in New York City. But how did Elisha get to this place and what was so unique about his elevator (there had been others that could go up a bit since ropes and trees in the B.C.) that would convince the world of its safety and use for the general public. It's called the demonstration of the brake, that instilled confidence that a free fall wouldn't happen if something went wrong from a significant height.
Otis founded his company in 1853 in Yonkers, New York, but had only sold three units that year and none in the first months of 1854, the second year of the 1853-4 New York World's Fair. His background had been in the bedframe manufacturing business, serving as a mechanic and floor manager of a firm. In 1852, he had thought up a system that could take wood up and down, plus employees, in that factory, and do it safely due to a locking mechanism in case the cable snapped. But no recognition came and he continued working there while starting the business and selling those first three units.
So Elisha decided that a demonstration was in order, and what better place to show the world was a World's Fair, which in its second year was being run by P.T. Barnum. He set up a working elevator, stood on a platform in front of a crowd, and cut the rope that held the elevator up. Elisha Otis, the forty-three year old inventor, then dropped, but only a few inches. His safety brake halted the platform and proved his concept. A safe elevator could be installed in buildings for passengers and freight.
He sold seven elevators in 1854, fifteen in 1855, at about $300 apiece, most for hauling freight and employees. And then he installed the first in a commercial setting for customers.
First Commercial Installation
Sales were beginning to roll into the Otis Company when the first installation of a commercial elevator for customers occurred on March 23, 1857. In the Soho District of New York City, at the corner of Broadway and Broome, Otis installed a five floor elevator into the E.V. Haughwout Building, which housed a business that sold cut glass, silverware, china (he sold White House china to Mary Todd Lincoln), and chandeliers. The elevator would be powered by a steam engine in the basement and rise those five floors at 0.67 feet per second. It would be an attraction, which the entrepreneur knew, bringing people in to see the elevator, then stay to buy goods.
Today the building still stands, on the National Register of Historic Places since 1873.
Growth of the Industry
By 1873, there were two thousand elevators in use from the United States to Russia. The Otis Elevator company was a big hit. It prompted the explosion of building in Manhattan, a borough of limited real estate, by allowing structures to grow into the sky. It would continue across the globe, including the Eiffel Tower, 1889, and back in New York City with the Empire State Building, 1930, and those amazing one hundred and two floors. Otis had proved that tall structures could be scaled by the general public in a safe manner, higher each decade from that first simple demonstration. You could make an elevator go up and down in safety.
Today the Otis Elevator Company, owned by United Techologies since 1976, is still the largest manufacturer of vertical lift systems, elevators, escalators, and moving walkways, in the world. It has sales of over $12 billion per year, has sixty-four thousand employees, and is headquartered in Farmington, Connecticut.
Photo above: Otis demonstrating his elevator and braking system at the New York World's Fair in 1854. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Photo below: Exterior New York Crystal Palace, Industry of All Nations, lithograph by Nigel & Weingartner, Carl Emil Doepler, artist, 1852. Info source: Mr. Otis Gives You a Life, Wired Magazine, March 2010, John C. Abell; "The First Otis Elevator is Installed in New York City," Mapsofworld.com; Wikipedia Commons.