How Elevators Have Enabled Our Modern Lifestyle


Depending on your definition of the word “elevator,” the technology dates back as far as ancient Rome. But it’s really over the last 150 years or so that this innovation has come into its own.

You could probably argue that the elevator is one of the key enablers of our modern lifestyles. For proof, just look at any city skyline. If you’re going to build hundreds of feet in the air, you’ve got to have a way to get people up there once you’re done.

In fact, some city development patterns can be directly traced to advances in elevator technology, says Patrick Carr, a former elevator manufacturer and consultant, and proprietor of the recently closed Elevator Historical Society, a museum he established in his office in Long Island City, N.Y.

Once they developed the gearless machine, that was the time you saw buildings start shooting up.

Take, for instance, the development of the gearless traction machine around the turn of the last century.

“Before that time you had only drum machines,” Carr says, analogizing such systems to a spool of thread. “You roll out the cable and then you roll it back up again.”

Because the height such elevators could ascend was directly related to the size of the drum holding the cable, these machines topped out at around 20 or 22 floors. “The drum would get so unwieldy you couldn’t fit it in the elevator shaft,” Carr says.

Gearless machines, on the other hand, are able to work at essentially any height, he notes, adding that the development of Manhattan’s cityscape upon the arrival of this technology reflects that fact.


The art deco elevator bank in the Chrysler Building in New York City. 

“Once they developed the gearless machine, that was the time you saw buildings start shooting up,” Carr says. “Before you knew it, you had buildings going up like the Woolworth Building (792 feet tall), the Chrysler Building (1,046 feet) and obviously the Empire State Building (1,454 feet).”

Since then, the industry has seen a variety of other new technologies, including fully automatic elevators, eliminating the need for human operators, solid state elevator controls and now computer-controlled elevators. Looking ahead, Carr says technologies like nanocarbon fiber components and cableless elevators will likely carve out places in the industry.

This year, German industrial firm ThyssenKrupp said it plans to begin testing its new MULTI elevator design, a cableless elevator powered by magnet-based technology, similar to that used in magnetic levitation trains. According to the company, elevator cabs will be able to move not only vertically but also horizontally within buildings, allowing for multiple cabs per shaft and switching between shafts.

But ask Carr, who began working with elevators when he was 11 years old, about his favorite elevators, and he doesn’t bring up technological advances or innovative designs. Rather, he’s a fan of the old school.

“I think the early period was phenomenal,” he says. “You had birdcage open elevators that were just so elegantly designed. You had velvet covered seats in the back. The machinery even, while it was huge and impressive, was very elegant in its design. They were just so beautiful.”

You can’t beat a classic.


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