Once the top-hatted, generously bearded Otis had attained his lofty position, he invited an axe-bearing assistant to cut the cable suspending the open elevator on which he stood. The platform jerked slightly, the crowds gasped, nothing else happened. The Safety Elevator had arrived. Skyscrapers could begin scraping.
Elisha Graves Otis (1811-61) had been a wagon driver, miller, bed manufacturer and factory owner. He had invented a bedstead turning machine and an automatic bread baking oven but had had little success as an entrepreneur.
Then, after struggling to move goods between floors of his factory in New York, he designed and built an elevator. It wasn’t a new idea; elevators were already in existence. But they had always been seen as dangerous – tainted by the fear of the cable snapping.
Otis’s innovation was a ratchet with safety catches which, in the event of a fall, automatically locked into place. He set up the Otis Steam Elevator Works to manufacture his invention but, although his name was eventually to become synonymous with lifts, he had little luck before his very public, very American stunt at the World’s Fair.
Without Otis’s invention, though, the multi-storey buildings that later defined the American cityscape would have been impossible – he is the father of New York and Chicago as we know them.
But there was something else ominously present in the stunt that he repeated many times – danger. In some performances a sabre was used to cut the cable, in others he was presented with a dagger on a velvet cushion. The gasps of the crowd were predicated on their anticipation of disaster.
Now, few passengers give a second thought to the precariousness of the little claustrophobic box – and thanks to Elisha Otis, they don’t need to.
According to FT