An Introduction to the history of lifts

The word ‘lift’ usually describes a vertical transportation device that moves people or materials between floors in a structure; although in agriculture and manufacturing it can be used to mean a conveyor. Lifts are statistically the safest way to travel. Interesting lift fact: as a group, they carry the equivalent of the world’s population in three days. They have played an important role in shaping our world and our lives.

Ancient Lift History

Archimedes is generally credited with inventing the lift in around 236 BC although the Ancient Egyptians used a form of lifts consisting of rope-driven hoists powered by humans, animals or water to build pyramids and temples and irrigate crops.

Lifts have been created in various forms, mostly for moving materials due to safety concerns; most notable was one that used to raise a battering ram to destroy a fortress! The Romans used lifts in the Colosseum and it was also considered very fashionable for lifts to be installed in royal palaces – from Louis XV of France’s ‘flying chair and table’ in 1743 in Versailles (for his mistress) to the first screw-drive lift in the Russian Emperor’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in 1793.

The Industrial Revolution resulted in the widespread use of lifts to move materials, with lift technology developing to cater to increased loads and distances. This saw the introduction of steam-driven lifts (1800) and hydraulic-driven lifts (early 19th century). Passenger lifts were still rare due to a lack of safety systems, although there was a tourist attraction in London in 1823 called the ‘ascending room’ which gave a panoramic view of London to paying customers.

A common misconception regarding lift history is that the lift was invented in 1854 by Elisha Otis. The lift facts are that he invented the safety lift, which prevented the car from falling if the cable broke by use of a safety brake.

This proved that lifts were safe and therefore practical for large-scale use and lead to the first passenger lift in a New York department store in 1857.

Interestingly, the first lift shaft had been built a few years before Otis revealed his invention due to the confidence of the building designer that a safety lift would soon be invented; Otis rewarded this confidence by designing a special cylindrical lift for the building later.

Otis’ invention began the transformation of building practices; buildings became skyscrapers and safety lifts allowed the secure movement of people and materials within much larger buildings. It also turned the desirability of living spaces literally on its head, with the wealthy now choosing to live higher up than the poor – in the ‘penthouse’.

After Otis revolutionized passenger lifts, the pace of development sped up considerably:

1880 – Werner von Siemens invented the electric lift
1880 – Frank Sprague made significant developments in lift speed and safety
1883 – Schuyler Wheeler patented his electronic lift design
1874 – J. W. Meaker patented the first method for lift doors to open and close safely
1887 – Alexander Miles patented car with automatic doors that close off lift shaft
1894 – Push-button controls appeared
1895 – Traction-drive allowed taller lift shafts and greater car speeds
1900 – Completely automated lifts but passengers wary of ‘lift sickness’!
1904 – Addition of gearless feature made car speed virtually unlimited
1915 – Automatic levelling precisely positioned cars, power-controlled doors followed
1932 – First double-decker lift, serving two floors at each stop, installed
1945 – Lift operator strike, automated voice, emergency buttons/telephones
1950 – Manned lifts became thing of the past
As well as continuing to enhance all aspects of lifts, more recent developments include:

  • separate inner and outer doors
  • photo-electric controls/proximity devices to avoid injury and control door reversal
  • passenger and lift monitoring equipment
  • audio-visual devices for information and advertising

Finally, the next big development being worked on is the space lift – something Elisha Otis and the other lift pioneers could only have dreamed of!

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