The Invention: “A Safety Appliance”

Picture of Patent

Elisha Otis has been wrongfully described many times as the inventor of the elevator or the inventor of the modern elevator. He created the invention that has garnered him so many legacies, while working on an elevator. Elisha Graves Otis’s patent is for a safety device on the hoisting apparatus on the platform.  The patent was filed in 1852, but only the drawings remain. The drawing is slightly unrecognizable to the untrained eye. After hearing a description of how the device works, it is far easier.

Colored Elisha Otis Patent

The simple device that prevents Otis’s platform from falling seems crude, but it is effective. The platform ran on rails with ratchets notched into them. A large spring, such as those seen beneath early horde-drawn carriages, stretches across the top of the platform carriage. The hoisting rope connected to this spring. If the rope was taut, then the spring was bent towards the ceiling removing the spring from the notches. If the rope gave out, the pressure on the spring would immediately release and the spring would expand into the notches cut into the guide rails.[1]

This safety device prevented the elevator from falling. According to the invention story, Elisha Graves Otis created the device in order to better protect cargo or factory equipment. Due to his later showcasing of its safety for human passengers, he must have discovered its potential aside from its commercial or industrial use. He may have also gained it from one of the many newspaper reports of elevators or platforms injuring and killing people, such as the one below from August 1860.[2]


THOMAS REILLY, a native of Ireland, 18 years of age, died in the New-York Hospital yesterday from the effects of injuries received on Tuesday last, by falling through the hatchway of the building No. 443 Broadway. Coroner JACKMAN held an inquest in the case yesterday, when it appeared that deceased was at work on the fourth floor of the building, removing goods from a steam elevator, when the rope of the elevator broke, and the platform, with the goods upon it, rapidly descended. REILLY, who was reaching over the elevator at the time, lost his balance and fell through the hatchway to the first floor, sustaining fatal injusies. The jury rendered the usual verdict, and censured the machinist for not providing the elevator with a rope properly secured and sufficiently strong.

Another article, but this one form the same year as Elisha Graves Otis’s patent, 1852.[3]

Mr. John Taylor, of New Ipswich, N.H., med with a dangerous accident on Wednesday last, at the Souhegan Factory in that town. In adjusting some machinery on an “Elevator,” in the upper part of the building, a rope broke, and he was precipitated with the load through the several stories of the building, a distance o forty feet. He was severely bruised in several places on his body, and received two large wounds on his head, fracturing the skull near the top. He was insensible for several hours… A boy fell at the same time, and escaped with very slight injuries.

It would have been difficult for Elisha Graves Otis to look at these articles and not think of the applications for his safety device. Otis died in 1861. But in 1860, his invention’s potential began to be realized by the masses.

[1] Hearst Magazines, Popular Mechanics, vol. 63,  5 (Hearst Magazines, 1935), 690.

[2] “Coroners’ Inquests.; DEATH OF AN INFANT FROM ALLEGED MALPRACTICE.,” The New York Times, August 11, 1860, sec. Archive,

[3] “Article 17 — No Title – Article –,” New York Times, November 8, 1852,

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