Few inventions have had such a profound impact on the modern city’s design as the elevator. The ability to instantly transport large groups of people hundreds of feet into the air has revolutionized how we live, work, and travel. We couldn’t live or work in skyscrapers without motorized lifts. The density of cities like New York City would be impossible to maintain if it weren’t for a sea of five- and six-story walkups.
“The lack of interest academicians have exhibited in the cultural life of elevators is shocking,” lift part suppliers historian Daniel Levinson Wilk recently told the Boston Globe. It’s shocking, because the elevator’s history is intriguing. Here are a few interesting facts regarding this game-changing piece of technology:
1. The first modern elevators were found in fancy hotel lobbies. In 1857, the world’s first passenger elevator was erected in a hotel in New York City. In the 1870s, technology finally made its way into office buildings, allowing firms to expand upward rather than outward.
2. In the United States, there are now 900,000 elevators. In 2012, the world sold around the same amount of new elevators (914,000). (China received 58 percent of the new elevators.)
3. Elevators were originally referred to as “movable rooms.” They had chandeliers, ornate furniture, and plush carpets. Before being hurled to another floor, passengers sat down and got comfy.
4. There would be no penthouse without the elevator. The invention of the elevator revolutionized the way people planned multistory buildings. Prior to the invention of the elevator, the upper floors of a house were reserved for servants or low-rent tenants who had to hoof it up numerous flights of stairs, while the world’s movers and shakers lived on the more easily accessible lower floors. The rich began to appreciate the view from the top after elevators began transporting occupants in elegance to the upper stories, giving rise to the penthouse.
5. Cities as we know them would not exist without elevators. According to Patrick Carrajat, founder of the New York Elevator Museum, “If we didn’t have elevators… we would have a megalopolis, one continuous city, reaching from Philadelphia to Boston, since everything would be five or six stories tall.” Equitable Life Assurance Society CEO Henry B. Boyle dramatically transformed New York’s financial sector in the 1870s by constructing the city’s highest structure at the time–a full seven floors with two elevators.
6. People worried that vertical transportation might make us sick in the early 1900s. Doctors used to be concerned about “elevator sickness,” a disorder induced by the abrupt movement of internal organs when an elevator came to a halt.
7. Elevators have always made us feel uneasy. People couldn’t figure out whether an elevator counted as a room, and therefore whether hats were expected to be doffed, yet gentlemen were still obliged to remove their hats in the presence of a woman. We only have to worry about avoiding eye contact now.
8. Dispatch efficiency may be the death knell for the elevator pitch. “Destination dispatch,” a mechanism that puts passengers travelling to the same levels of a building onto the same elevator, is now used in new elevators. This allows people to go where they need to go faster and more efficiently, but it comes at the cost of separating staff on various floors. In a company with numerous levels, this reduces the chances of the CEO becoming trapped in an elevator with the intern.