Few inventions have changed the design of the modern city like the elevator. The ability to shuttle groups of people rapidly hundreds of feet into the air has transformed the way we live, work, and travel. Without mechanical lifts, we could not live or work in skyscrapers. The density of metropolises like New York City would be entirely impossible, replaced by a sea of five- and six-story walkups.
And yet, as elevator historian Daniel Levinson Wilk told the Boston Globe recently, "The lack of interest scholars have shown in the cultural life of elevators is appalling." Appalling indeed, because the history of the elevator is fascinating. Here are just a fascinating tidbits about this transformative piece of technology:
1. The first modern elevators were in the lobbies of luxury hotels. The world's first passenger elevator was installed in a New York City hotel in 1857. In the 1870s, the technology finally moved into office buildings, allowing businesses to grow up instead of out.
2. There are now 900,000 elevators in America. About the same number of new elevators—914,000—were sold in the world in 2012. (58% of those new elevators went to China.)
3. Early elevators were considered "movable rooms." They featured chandeliers and elaborate furniture and carpeting. Passengers sat down and got comfortable before being catapulted onto another floor.
4. Without the elevator, there would be no penthouse. The adoption of the elevator radically changed how people arranged multistory buildings. Before the elevator, the highest levels of a home would be reserved for the servants or low-rent tenants, who could be expected to hoof it up multiple flights of stairs, while the movers and shakers of the world lived on the easily accessible lower floors. Once elevators began ferrying tenants in style to the upper floors, the rich began to appreciate the view from the top, giving rise to the penthouse.
5. In fact, without elevators, cities as we know them couldn't exist. "If we didn’t have elevators ... we would have a megalopolis, one continuous city, stretching from Philadelphia to Boston, because everything would be five or six stories tall," according to Patrick Carrajat, founder of New York's Elevator Museum. In the 1870s, Equitable Life Assurance Society CEO Henry B. Boyle changed New York's financial district forever by building the tallest building in the city at that time—a full seven stories, with a pair of elevators.
6. In the early 1900s, people worried vertical transport would make us sick. Doctors used to fret over "elevator sickness," a condition caused by the sudden movement of internal organs as an elevator came to an abrupt stop.
7. We've always been uncomfortable in elevators. When gentlemen were still expected to take off their hats in a woman's presence, people couldn't figure out whether an elevator counted as a room, and thus whether hats were expected to be doffed. Now, we just worry about avoiding eye contact.
8. Dispatch efficiency could kill the elevator pitch. New elevators employ what's called "destination dispatch," a system that directs people going to the same floors of a building into the same elevator. This allows people to get where they're going faster and more efficiently—but at the price of segregating employees headed to different floors. In a company that spans multiple floors, that makes it much less likely that the CEO will get trapped in an elevator with the intern.
9. There’s a monthly magazine called Elevator World. It’s a trade magazine for the International Building Transportation Industry, and I'm getting a subscription immediately.
Read the Boston Globe's entire cultural history of the elevator here.