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Going Up! Going Down! A History of the Otis Elevator Company

Jeffrey Syken

When you hear the word “Otis,” the nearly universal thought that comes to mind is “Elevator” (since the two words have been so intimately associated with one another for a very long time). There’s a common misconception that goes along with this word association: Elisha Graves Otis – the founder of the company, invented the elevator that, along with the “cage frame,” made the Skyscraper possible. Truth be told, the elevator and the cage frame were, indeed, the two technologies that came together in the late 19th Century starting forevermore the “Race for the Sky,” but E.G. Otis did not invent the elevator nor did he invent its derivative – the escalator.

The story of vertical transportation goes as far back as ancient Greece, where Archimedes is credited with having invented the first device for lifting a load from one level to another. Advances continued up to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, but there persisted one vexing problem: Safety. This is where Elisha Otis enters into the story of the elevator. Otis – a “Master Mechanic” at a Yonkers, N.Y. bed factory, was assigned the task of making a “lift” to hoist heavy bed frames. Aware of the ever-present danger of the hoist-rope breaking with deadly result, Otis invented a simple, but effective “Improved Hoisting Apparatus” which included a spring-loaded brake (it would automatically engage should the rope fail – an all too likely scenario). Thus was born the “Safety Elevator.”

Henceforth, elevators could be used for people (instead of just freight, as in the past). Otis began manufacturing his safety elevator in the defunct bed factory and with his death in 1861, his two very capable sons took over and grew the company into a multi-million dollar business. Thus, the Vertical Transportation Industry was born. Elevator technology improved steadily and Otis expanded into several other related fields of manufacturing, but at its core was/is the elevator and escalator. Today, the Otis Elevator Company is a division of United Technologies Corporation with a worldwide presence. It is the quintessential “Multinational” corporation; with over sixty thousand employees and operations in two hundred-plus countries. It’s hard to imagine a company that has had more influence on the very industry it created, and continues to do so.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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