Without elevators, the world would really need a lift. For example, John McClane from Die Hard would have had a harder time taking down terrorists. But above all—without elevators, it doesn’t seem like there would be any high rises, and without those, there’d be a lot fewer of us all. So what’s the past of these traveling cabins? What does their future look like? And where can elevators move you faster than the local speed limit?
1/ From Archimedes to a Palace
The ideas behind the elevator were known all the way back in classical times. The Greek mathematician Archimedes described them in writing, and at the Roman Colosseum, the muscles of over 200 slaves powered 24 elevator-like devices.
The biggest name in elevators’ modern history is Elisha Otis—the founder of the Otis Elevator Company, which is still in business today. In 1857, Otis produced a patent for an elevator with a safety mechanism. Four years later, when he inaugurated the first public passenger cabin, it was no great success—in fact, just three years later, this elevator in New York’s Haughwout Department Store shut down, because people were refusing to ride on it. But to be fair, that might have been not out of fear, but because it rode at the not-so-breakneck pace of 0.2 meters per second.
By that time, the oldest still-preserved elevator on Czech territory was already in operation. You’ll find it at the Zákupy Palace near Česká Lípa, and it dates back to the beginning of the 18th century.
Interior of the historical elevator from the 19th century used by the last crowned King of Bohemia Ferdinand I. The Good (also know as Ferdinand V. 1835–1848). Photo by the Zákupy Palace
2/ Don’t Jump Before It Lands
Have you ever imagined yourself plummeting down in a crowded elevator cabin and jumping when it’s a foot above the ground to save your butt? Well, we’ll have to disappoint you. You’d have to jump up at the same speed as you were falling down just before the impact. Not to mention that guessing the right moment to jump would be about as impossible as guessing the right time to ask for a raise.
But also, elevators don’t actually even fall. Their cabins are held by multiple massive steel ropes. So if anything you should be jumping for joy: elevators are statistically safer than taking the stairs.
3/ Press C for Placebo
It’s been two and a half years since Karen Penafiel, the executive director of National Elevator Industry, admitted in an interview for the New York Times that the “CLOSE” button in an elevator doesn’t do anything at all, and that it’s been that way for at least 16 years. To comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, manufacturers made this button non-functional, so that fellow-passengers would no longer be able to rob the handicapped of the time they need to get onto the elevator.
Nick Mellor, the technical director of Britain’s Lift and Escalator Industry Association, could not leave Penafiel’s words uncommented: Around his parts, the buttons still worked, although their response time may have slowed down.
Despite this reassurance, door-closing buttons have earned their place on the list of “placebo buttons”: buttons that only appear to work, to give you the feeling you have things under control.
4. “It’d Cut off Your Head!”
Even if they can’t close them on command, Americans can, it seems, be glad they at least have doors. Last year when The Insider magazine showed them a Czech paternoster (an apparatus, we must note, invented by Liverpudlian architect Peter Ellis in the 1860s, and one found throughout Europe), it terrified them: “You’d stumble and it’d cut off your head!”
And yet there’s a whole menagerie of similar contraptions Americans could fear instead:
- In Auckland, New Zealand, you can ride an outdoor elevator with a floor made out of a single piece of glass.
- China has the Bailong Elevator, the world’s tallest outdoor elevator, which will take you 326 meters up the slope of Zhangiajije mountain.
- In Berlin’s Radisson Blu hotel, meanwhile, you can ride though the inside of a giant aquarium with hundreds of fish and other sea animals.
- And the Shanghai Tower’s elevator will lift you up at a speed of 73.8 km per hour.
5. Up and Down, Sideways, Slant Ways…
In closing, here’s some great news for everyone who has to spend a lot of their time running to the next building over. Two years ago, the German firm ThyssenKrupp presented a concept for an elevator that will travel both vertically and horizontally. Imagine a sort of inter-building subway.
Wagging tongues will note that Willy Wonka already invented that back in 1964, but even so, it’s an interesting look into the near future.