Elisha Otis: The Inventor

Elisha Graves Otis: The Failure or The Inventor?

Elisha Otis is an atypical inventor when compared with others, such as Thomas Alva Edison or Silas McCormick. Elisha Graves Otis was plagued by business failure and debt for the majority of his life. Several business opportunities fell through. Had they been successful, the elevator may not look how it does today. Ultimately, Elisha Graves Otis’s tinkering and showmanship elevated his name to new heights.

The life of Elisha Graves Otis was by no means easy. His life was characterized by a series of business failures. His success has been misrepresented in most books and histories written about him. Otis was born in Vermont in 1811. He would have grown up hearing of a number of technological advances, such as the steamboat, the railroad, and Bessemer steel. There is no source or evidence that states his or her importance to Elisha Otis, but it can be postulated. They had a tremendous effect on the entire population culturally and technologically. These objects may have served as inspirations for his tinkering.

Throughout his life, he attempted many jobs and careers to complement his tinkerer’s spirit. Otis attempted milling at a gristmill business, building carriages, and creating machines that built bedsteads.[1] Tragically, he failed as a businessman and was out of work by the age of 40. Elisha Otis even thought of heading to California as part of the gold rush. Luckily, Elisha Otis was given an opportunity. A previous employer gave him a job supervising the construction of a factory.[2] While building this factory, Elisha Otis encountered problems raising loads on platforms to the higher levels of the factory. To counter the accidents that plagued most elevation platforms, or elevators, Elisha Otis constructed a safety device.

The safety device that Elisha Otis constructed in that factory is the basis for all future designs. It is hard to pinpoint his exact inspiration, but his career in a diverse number of fields tinkering with mechanics gave him the skill set. The amount of technological advancement during this time may have also inspired his design.


[1] Larry Schweikart, Safari Tech Books Online, American Entrepreneur the Fascinating Stories of the People Who Defined Business in the United States (New York: AMACOM, 2010), 140.

[2] Ibid., 140-141.

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