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Passenger Elevators - safe, of course - aren't they?

Updated on July 10, 2014

The Nightmare

The Elevator - X Certificate

You are in small metal room with no seats and no features to offer comfort.. .. The room is full of strangers... It is made of metal and is moving vertically at a thousand feet a minute.

Although you are going at the speed of a rocket, you have no brakes. You have buttons to start it but nothing to stop it.... Nothing.....

You have no control over it........No control....

No control.......

Wake up!

You're in an elevator (more commonly known as a lift in the UK).

People do this every day and take their vertical journeys for granted. They don't worry about it....Or do they?

Who can claim that he or she has never given a thought to the possibility of a "rope snapping~" followed by a rather too rapid free fall to the bottom. When I'm in a lift I sometimes find myself considering the possibilities of jumping into the air on impact or hanging onto a ledge. We'll take a look at safety features of elevators a little later. I also find myself wondering how lifts developed, who first built them, tested them and rode in them? The names of Otis and Siemens are frequently seen on elevators. Who were they?

Elevator Poll

You might call this a lift entrance poll. There'll be a lift exit poll later.

When You Enter An Elevator Are You....

See results

The First Elevators

There are references to passenger elevators in Roman and Greek writings from the Third Century BC and credit for inventing the first working elevator is genrally given to the Greek scientist, engineer and inventor, Archimedes (287 BC - c. 212 BC) who in around 236 BC created an elevator worked by pulleys and winches.

The first elevators were very basic- a wooden sided box hauled by animals or human slaves, pulling a hemp rope over a grooved wooden pulley. Early writings describe the lifting of people by this means in Saint Catherine's Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai in Egypt.

The Romans were clever and inventive engineers and it was they, unsurprisingly, who built the most complex elevator system of the ancient world. It was constructed in the Colosseum in Rome in the 1st century BC and was used to transport gladiators and wild animals from the depths of the building up to the arena. The scale was enormous. No less than 24 cages were operated by a human slave force of 224 men working in teams of eight. At the busiest times, all 24 cages could be brought up and down from basement to the arena in the matter of seconds.

During the following centuries requirements for building construction, trade and warfare led to the development of ever more efficient mechanisms to operate elevators or hoists in order to move and lift both men and materials for walls and buildings.

Elevator Trivia

Be sure to stand clear of the door as it is closing.

Remember that the door sensors aren't always completely reliable.

The Construction of a Cathedral

The picture shows the myriad ropes, pulleys and lifting apparatus required in such a complex undertaking. If anyone can spot a Health and Safety official perhaps you could let me know!


14th Century Treadmill in Salisbury Cathedral

During the Middle Ages construction skills were honed to the very highest levels in the building and engineering of the magnificent Cathedrals being erected in France and England. Power was still supplied by animals or human labour or by water-driven mechanisms but there was a continual improvement in the pulleys, cranes, blocks and tackles, and in the ropes, chains, and cables used to harness and amplify this power.

In the Seventeenth Century a rough type of passenger elevator was used in the royal palaces of England and France with both animal and human motive power. The first elevator designed solely for passenger use was built in 1743 for King Louis XV of France. His personal elevator,Known as the "Flying Chair," was entered by the king via his balcony and went from the first to the second floor on the outside of the building. It was operated by a team of men working an arrangement of weights and pulleys hanging inside a chimney.


Early steam-driven elevator

The elevator as we might recognise it today was first developed during the nineteenth century and for lifting power it used the new inventions of steam and hydraulics. Elevators and hoists were used for transporting materials within the tall factory buildings, mines, and warehouses which were springing up in the Industrial Revolution, but they also conveyed passengers. The hydraulic passenger elevator used a system of lever controls and pilot valves to enable the passenger to regulate the cab speed but the elevators were not safety orientated and accidents were common. It was in 1852 that the world's first safety elevator was developed - the important word here is "safety". And this is where Elisha Graves Otis comes into the story.

Elevator Trivia

There are more than 1.2 million Otis elevators and escalators in operation throughout the world.

Elisha Graves Otis
Elisha Graves Otis

Elisha Graves Otis

Father of the Modern Elevator

Elisha Graves Otis did not invent the modern elevator, but he made today's sophisticated, super fast elevators a practical proposition by inventing and patenting the elevator safety brake, and he was the first elevator entrepreneur.

In 1853 he gave a demonstration of a freight elvator which was able to brake should a supporting cable fail. This gave a major boost to public confidence and Otis was able to install his company's first passenger elevator in 1857 in a department store in New York. He and his sons esablished Otis Brothers and Company in Yonkers, NY, which has gone on to become the world's largest manufacturer of elevator systems.

Within 20 years over 2,000 businesses, hotels and department stores across America had installed Otis elevators and when the electric motor was integrated into elevator technology by German inventor Werner von Siemens, developers were able to build taller and taller structures. In 1889, when Otis installed the first electric elevators, the age of the skyscraper had truly arrived. Every city in America aimed ever higher and the urban landscape would never be the same. The elevator had changed America.

Up to Date

During the Twentieth century elevator technology and control methods developed rapidly, with the electric gearless traction elevator, multi speed motors and electromagnet technology which replaced rope driven cars. Push button controls were introduced and these have now, in their turn, been replaced by keypads. Computers have brought great flexibility, efficiency and extreme safety.

Elevators have developed into something of an art form and are an integral part of the look and functioning ability of any tall modern building as this picture of the spiral staircase at the Louvre in Paris with elevator pillar in the center, shows.

And you're STILL asking "But will the ropes break? Will we plunge to the bottom in a ball of fire?". Well let's find out........

Elevator Trivia

Most people who die in elevators are elevator technicians.

How Safe Are They?

Statisitically elevators are the safest way to travel and are twenty times safer than escalators.

The first reassuring fact to learn is that modern elevators do not use ropes but steel cables. Each cable is capable of holding the full weight of a fully laden car and there are FIVE or SIX of them. If they all fail there are still automatic braking systems which will bring the car to a halt if excessive speed is built up.

It is IMPOSSIBLE for a lift to plummet down the shaft. Any fault will cause the car to halt, but not fall............. I'm going to repeat that.

It is IMPOSSIBLE for a lift to plummet down the shaft. Any fault will cause the car to halt, but not fall.

For this reason if you are in a lift which breaks down and stops, the first and most important rule is: DON'T GET OUT OF THE LIFT - inside it you are safe - maybe inconvenienced, but safe. Wait for help to arrive.

Elevator Trivia

Elevator music first appeared in 1920s to calm the fearful passengers who used the elevators for the first time.

Elevator Surfing

There is a breed of thrill seeker who follows the extremely dangerous pastime (I can't call it sport) of "elevator surfing" , also known as "elevator chicken", and "elevator action.".

I want to stress that it is illegal in most places and even where its not it can only be described as downright stupid. Briefly it can be defined as climbing on top of an elevator cab and riding up and down the lift shaft on it. It can also invove jumping from one moving car roof to another where there are adjoining shafts.

It is lethally dangerous. Numerous people have been crushed to death when the elevator reaches the top, or have been struck by the counterweight, or simply slipped and fallen to their deaths. For instance, between 1984 and March 1991, there were 14 fatal accidents involving Elevator Surfing in and around the New York area. The main causes of death, not surprisingly, were falls, and crush injuries.

It makes me dizzy just thinking about it, so just take this advice: Don't do it!

Elevator Trivia

The "Close Door" button will not make the door close any faster.

How do you feel about elevators now? - Lift Exit Poll

Are you reassured?

After reading this lens

See results

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Guestbook Comments

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    • C McNairy Wight 1 profile image

      Carol McNairy Wight 2 years ago from Provo, Utah

      Good article, well written. You might enjoy mine. It has a real case of being stuck and scared out of my wits.

    • Natalie W Schorr profile image

      Natalie W Schorr 5 years ago

      Great use of elevator trivia - well done lens!