by Anant Gupta
Just for fun, imagine if at your next ride in an elevator, the cable snaps. Or there is a tense moment when you hear the cable wire snapping till its least strand. Enough to give someone a heart attack, elevators are thankfully designed to be completely safe (at least that’s what they say) even if such a calamity occurs. At a time when even climbing too high on a ladder was considered unsafe, and most probably still is, Elisha Otis was already in the process of designing the world’s first modern safety elevator.
A natural tinkerer
Born in Vermont in 1811, Otis was 19 when he moved to Troy, New York looking for a job. Despite his talent in carpentry and innovative spirit, Otis struggled to keep a job for long and had to tough it out. After working several odd jobs as a wagon driver and carpenter, Otis was hired at a bedstead factory to make bed frames.
Otis found his first success here, where he invented an automatic turner that enabled an unskilled worker to cut 50 bedrails a day. Through this, he automated the bedstead manufacturing process, producing 4 times the bedstead produced originally and saving a lot of manual effort. He was rewarded $500 for his efforts, which Otis decided to invest in an automatic brakes manufacturing plant. However, the market for automatic brakes was thin, and a year later Otis was back on the streets, this time working for the owners of an abandoned sawmill. Little did Otis know that his invention at this place would establish his legacy in the world of vertical transportation!
How the elevator came into being
The idea for the elevator started off as a solution to a seemingly mundane problem. In 1852, Otis was asked to convert a ramshackle sawmill into a bedstead factory. The machinery, lying on the ground floor was to be shifted on the floor above. Normally, Otis would have used the hoister (a wooden platform attached to a single cable wound over a pulley) to lift the machines upstairs. However, operating the hoister had its own set of problems. The hoister was notoriously dangerous to use, with the snap of a single cable causing the entire structure to plummet to the ground. The workers had to tread cautiously when hoisting machine; one crash could result in a loss of thousands of dollars.
Tired of following the conventional method, Otis instead set his mind to devise a better, and safer way to move things vertically. It was then that he came up with the idea of the safety elevator – a device which could keep the hoister safe even in a case of a mishap.A sketch of Otis demonstrating the elevator, circa 1854. Credits: Wikimedia Commons
Working of the safety elevator
The Otis elevator excelled where other elevators failed miserably—keeping things safe in case of any failure. Otis achieved this by implementing an ingenious spring-pulley system in the design of the elevator.
Ordinarily, the elevator was fitted between two vertical arms where it would slide up and down. A solid cable was connected to the top of the elevator, and wound over several pulleys, before the loose end of the cable was handled by someone to raise or lower the elevator. A counterweight was used to reduce the manual effort of lifting the hoister. Otis improvised on the original design by inserting a spring system in between the junction where the cable was attached to the car. Till the cable was intact, the spring would be pulled along with the car and remain compressed. Just in case the cable broke, instead of the box zooming downwards, the spring would expand (since no one was applying any pressure on the spring) into two ratchet-like arms (called “pawls”) which would horizontally cling onto the saw-tooth like engravings on the vertical arms. Hence, after a momentary drop, the fall would be arrested and motion would come to rest.
Here’s an original text of what an author had to say about the Otis elevator–
“A model of engineering simplicity, the safety device consisted of a used wagon spring that was attached to both the top of the hoist platform and the overhead lifting cable,” wrote Joseph J. Fucini and Suzy Fucini in Entrepreneurs: The Men and Women Behind Famous Brand Names and How They Made It. ”Under ordinary circumstances, the spring was kept in place by the pull of the platform’s weight on the lifting cable. If the cable broke, however, this pressure was suddenly released, causing the big spring to snap open in a jaw-like motion. When this occurred, both ends of the spring would engage the saw-toothed ratchet-bar beams that Otis had installed on either side of the elevator shaft, thereby bringing the falling hoist platform to a complete stop.”Portrait photograph of Elisha Otis. Credits: Wikimedia Commons
Zooming upwards – the Otis Elevator Co.
Motivated by his invention, Otis established the Otis Elevator Co. and started taking in orders for the safety elevator. Despite the obvious usability of the elevator, Otis could hardly gather any orders for his design. In fact, he refused to patent the design and continued to openly use the blueprints at other mills where he worked.
It was in 1854, at the New York World’s Fair, in a P.T Barnum style exhibition, that Otis opened the doors of his elevator (quite literally) for the world. In a dramatic show with a climactic suspense, Otis stood high on a hoister and asked a man to cut the only cable supporting it. The crowd watched with bated breath as the rope was cut to its last strand, and then snapped to send the platform jerk downwards, only to be arrested by the spring-pulley safety mechanism. Amidst raucous applause, Otis pulled off one of the greatest marketing stunts of the century. The exhibition had a strong domino effect on sales – sales doubled every year following that stunt.
Impact of the safety elevator
Now commonplace in almost every commercial building, the Otis elevator made building skyscrapers practical. It is no surprise that the world’s most famous landmarks—Eiffel Tower, Burj Khalifa and the World Trade Center use the Otis elevator to transport people vertically across.
However, the commonality of finding an elevator in almost every commercial building is more important an achievement. People freely use the elevator to climb multiple floors with little apprehension or fear of any mishap occurring. This has been possible majorly due to Elisha Otis – and remains his biggest contribution to mankind.
Anant Gupta is a Business Intelligence Analyst at KPMG.
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