Adoption

The Spectacle

It would have been quite a spectacle. Thousands of spectators flooded into the Crystal Palace Exposition in New York City to see the marvels of 1853. Elisha Graves Otis exhibited his safety brake at this fair, and the image of the event stuck in many minds. It was a combination of showmanship and ingenuity that captivated the crowd. Elisha Graves Otis stood on an elevating platform. As it rose up, Otis would reach up with a knife and cut the cable pulling the platform.[1] The public expected the same results that they had read about or seen: death or serious injury. The public saw something different though. Elisha Otis’s platform did not plummet. Otis’s safety brake cause a slight lurch downward until the spring kicked out into the guide rails. It is believed that then Otis would say, “All safe, Gentleman, all safe.”[2] Only a short few years after discovering his invention, Elisha Otis understood his invention’s true potential.

Otis Spectacle

In 1857, Elisha Otis installed his first passenger elevator at 488 Broadway, New York City.[3] Some historians claim that Elisha Otis’s invention had a slow start and that the adoption of the technology was slow. This is due to two main reasons.  The first reason is that people were scared of the technology. The second is that since there were no safe passenger elevators prior to this, buildings were kept to manageable heights for walking. They still did not trust the platform.

In 1860, just a year prior to Elisha Otis’s death, an article was written in the New York Times discussing the feasibility of elevators. The article is called “Steam Versus Stairs—The Movable Room in the Fifth-avenue Hotel-Value of the Principle for Private Residences, and for all ‘Elevators.” In this article, the unnamed author discusses how the entire world would change, if there were a safe and secure vertical transportation device aside from stairs. The author mentions elevators, but also mentions that the boilers used to power the elevators have a habit of blowing up. In a short discussion on using elevators for the hoisting of goods, they write, “be rendered entirely feasible by a safe hoisting and lowering apparatus. As it is, the accidents occurring to the old plans are so frequent and remediless as to prevent a considerable adoption of them.”[4] It appears in this article that people continued to distrust the elevator. Although this journalist believes the people did not trust in Otis’s designs, he sold 42 freight elevators in the two years after his exposition debut.[5] It seems feasible that 42 elevators would encompass a good number of buildings in the New York City area during this period.

After his death, Otis’s company was left to his two sons. They patented more than fifty new refinements to the elevators. By 1873, Otis’s sons had sold over two thousand elevators worldwide.[6] The Otis elevator’s popularity rose with the skyscraper. The elevator allowed for the construction of the skyscraper much like steel and electricity did (Please see, Impact article). Elisha Graves Otis may have left his company in 1861, but that was not the end of his elevator. His two sons propelled the company beyond public safety fears and into some of the largest buildings in the world.

A Tale of Two Otis’: The Competition Between The Otis Company and Otis Tufts

Otis Tufts

In the same New York Times article on elevator safety, the journalist argues for the elevator design of another man. He even goes as far as to argue that with this man’s device, Americans will be able to have safe, reliable, and quiet elevators in their own private homes. The journalist is referring to Otis Tufts’s screw-driven, steam powered elevator. A design thought to revolutionize vertical transportation in 1860.

Otis Tufts’s design is called the second successful passenger elevator. The author would argue that this is the first completely revolutionary system designed for private, passenger use. The first Tufts elevator was installed in 1859 in the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City.[7] The Tufts design was for “The conveyance of persons from the different stories of hotels, public buildings, and even private residences.” Tufts’s original intentions were for his elevator to convey only passengers. The fully enclosed capsule had automatic opening doors, benches to sit on, steam power, and did not operate via cables. Instead of being hoisted, the platform capsule would raise as a large, hollow screw twisted inside.[8]

Otis Tufts Patent

The journalist from the New York Times may not have been wrong in his excitement. The Otis Tufts elevator seemed to be a better design suited specifically for passengers, but his design ultimately failed. Tufts’ design was perfect for a building of 7 stories, but the screw used for movement would become increasingly more difficult with taller buildings.[9] The cables used by the Elisha Otis elevators could be strung for hundreds of stories. The design by Tufts was just too complex. Even the patent drawing looks complex. With all of the gears, screws, and boiler issues, the design would have been expensive and prone to breaking down.[10] The elevator invented by Elisha Otis functioned better and was less expensive. In a business competition, the best design is sometimes the one that maximizes profits and has the lowest cost.


[1] Magazines, Popular Mechanics, 63:690.

[2] Schweikart, Safari Tech Books Online, American Entrepreneur the Fascinating Stories of the People Who Defined Business in the United States, 141.

[3] R. Preston McAfee, Competitive Solutions: The Strategist’s Toolkit (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2002), 80.

[4] “SCIENTIFIC NOTES.; Steam Versus Stairs–The Movable Room in the Fifth-avenue Hotel-Value of the Principle for Private Residences, and for all ‘Elevators.’,” The New York Times, January 23, 1860, sec. Archive, 1, http://www.nytimes.com/1860/01/23/news/scientific-notes-steam-versus-stairs-movable-room-fifth-avenue-hotel-value.html?scp=6&sq=falling%20elevator&st=p&pagewanted=2.

[5] Schweikart, Safari Tech Books Online, American Entrepreneur the Fascinating Stories of the People Who Defined Business in the United States, 141.

[6] McAfee, Competitive Solutions, 80; Dennis Karwatka, Technology’s Past: America’s Industrial Revolution and the People Who Delivered the Goods (Prakken Publications, 1996), 51.

[7] Sarah Bradford Landau and Carl W. Condit, Rise of the New York Skyscraper: 1865-1913 (Yale University Press, 1999), 36.

[8] “SCIENTIFIC NOTES.; Steam Versus Stairs–The Movable Room in the Fifth-avenue Hotel-Value of the Principle for Private Residences, and for all ‘Elevators.’”; “NOVA | The Other Elevator Inventor”, n.d., http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/tech/elevator-inventor.html.

[9] “NOVA | The Other Elevator Inventor.”

[10] Ibid.

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  3. […] other, as noted in the guide book description, an elevator. This elevator, which was designed by Otis Tufts, was the second successful passenger elevator ever […]