Elevators are a common feature as well as a necessity in buildings and homes around the world in today’s time, but most people don’t give much importance to its working or how they came into existence. Elevators are fascinating pieces of technology with a lengthy history.
Primitively elevators powered by water wheels, animals, or people go way back to 300 BC. These types of elevators were used for almost 2,000 years. It is strongly believed that Archimedes invented the first elevator back in 236 B.C., and his model functioned with hoisting ropes around a drum. These ropes were connected to a capstan, which was operated by human labor. This elevator became standardized significantly throughout the region, and it would have been found in many different locations in Ancient Greece. Ancient Rome also made use of the ingenuity that came from elevator use, and the equipment was common for moving animals and goods. In fact, they were an important part of the Colosseum. In the ancient grand amphitheater, lions, wolves, leopards, and bears would rise out of seemingly hidden holes in the ground to take part in gladiator battles. Today, we know that this was conducted by a lift system that led into the trap doors.
In the Colosseum, there were somewhere between 28 and 30 lifts, and the animals traveled up 23-feet tall wooden shafts before making their appearance. Each lift was designed to transport 600 pounds at once – roughly the weight of two lions – through the use of manpower, much like the Greek elevators. However, to carry such weight, the capstans required eight men to push and pull. This meant if all lifts operated at once, there would be 200 workers operating the machines at a given point in time.
The first human-powered, counter-weighted, personal elevator was built in 1743 for King Louis XV of France. It connected his apartment in Versailles to that of his mistress, Madame de Chateauroux, who lived one floor above him.
Elevator technology began to advance significantly in the 19th century. Many elevators were powered by steam and became important in the Industrial Revolution to allow people to transport heavy materials in warehouses, mines, and factories.
In 1823, two architects, Burton and Horner, built an “ascending room” to give tourists a panoramic view of London. In 1835, Frost and Stutt, who were also architects, built the “Teagle,” a steam, belt driven and counter-weighted elevator in England.
In 1846, Sir William Armstrong invented the hydraulic crane. The system was supported by a heavy piston that moved in a cylinder and was powered by oil or water pressure inside the pump. These lifts began to replace steam-powered elevators by the 1870s.
At 1854 New York World’s Fair, Elisha Otis, and his sons revealed an innovation to the elevator cable system that made them far more practical. This was a safety device, and it included a wooden frame at the top of the platform that would snap out against the sides of the elevator shaft if the ropes broke, essentially functioning as a brake. This increased the public’s confidence in elevators. Otis’ elevator company, the Otis Brothers, installed the first public elevator in a five-story New York department store in 1874. In 1887, an electric elevator, using the style pioneered by Werner von Siemens, was developed in Baltimore, using a revolving drum to wind the hoisting rope. Unfortunately, these drums were not large enough to store the long hoisting ropes required by skyscrapers and other large structures. However, the rapid advancement of motor technology brought on the gearless traction electric elevator by the early 1900s, allowing for taller buildings. Multi-speed motors soon replaced the original single-speed models, and push-button controls modernized the elevator even further. Electric elevators became more common in the late 19th century.
Hydraulic Elevators, just like many other advances in technology, became far more common in the mid-1800s during the Industrial Revolution. Many of these elevators were based on the hydraulic system, in which a piston inside a cylinder used pressure from water or oil to raise or lower the elevator car. The main drawback with these lifts was that the buildings containing them needed to have pits below the elevator shaft so that the pistons could draw completely back. The higher the building was, the deeper the pit had to be, making this lift type highly impractical. An alternative model to this used a cable system, in which ropes raised and lower the car by means of a pulley and gear system. A counterweight helped to conserve energy. This design is much closer to what we use today.
All the businesses that have been packed into the Earth’s metropolises today owe a major part of their lifestyles to this miraculous invention. In a lot of ways, the elevator was one of the key players in shaping our society. In the present and future, with urbanization on the rise, the elevator’s importance only continues. Today, more than half of the human population lives in cities. By 2050, it is estimated that the urban population will be about 5.1 billion, or two-thirds of the world population by that time. Of course, we will also likely see the incorporation of technological advancements in elevator systems to continue their safe and efficient use.