Ups & Downs: The Evolution of Elevators

(Image credit: Dampfplauderer | Wikimedia)

The need to move things to the next level has been recognized for thousands of years. Elevators have a long history, going from a platform attached to a rope pulled by a human to the smooth, electric rides in boxes that we now enjoy.

Invention and evolution

Vertical lifts may have been used to build the pyramids in Egypt. However, the first recorded use came in the third century B.C., according to Elevator History. Archimedes, the Greek mathematician, physicist and astronomer, is typically credited with inventing the first known elevator, according to Landmark Elevator. His device was operated by ropes and pulleys. The ropes were coiled around a winding drum by a capstan and levers, according to Otis World Wide. These early lifts, or hoists, powered by people, animals or water, were primarily used to lift heavy loads, such as water or building materials.

Crude elevator systems lifted people as early as the first century A.D, according to Otis. The Roman Coliseum used lifts to raise gladiators and wild animals up from the lower levels to the arena level. In medieval times, hoists were the only way to get to the monastery in St. Barlaam, Greece, which stood on a pinnacle about 200 feet (60 meters) off the ground.

King Louis XV had the one of the earliest elevators designed specifically for passenger use, known as the "flying chair." It was installed by Blaise-Henri Arnoult at the Palace of Versailles in 1743, according to This is Versailles. Louis needed a private elevator to allow his mistress to secretly visit him. The passenger operated the elevator by pulling a cord connected to pulley system with counterweights.

The next big leap in elevator technology came with the invention of the steam engine in 1765 by James Watt, according to Landmark Elevators. The new invention allowed elevators to move larger, heavier loads — such as coal, lumber and steel — to upper floors of taller buildings as construction boomed during the Industrial Revolution.

Elisha Graves Otis introduced the first safety device for elevators in 1852, which prevented the elevator from plummeting to the ground in case the cables broke. According to Funding Universe Company Histories, the saw-toothed ratchet activated to hold the elevator in place when a spring lost its tension by the breaking of the lifting cables. The first passenger elevator complete with Otis' safety feature was operational by 1857 in a New York City department store, according to Columbia Elevator.

Werner von Siemens built the first electric elevator in 1880, according to Siemens. The elevator was moved by a motor built underneath the platform and raised it by using a gear system based on the dynamo-electric principle. The elevator was originally supposed to premier at the Mannheim Pfalzgau Trade & Agricultural Exhibition in Germany, but was delayed by two months. The elevator proved to be a huge hit with thousands of passengers able to take a ride.

There are many milestones in elevator evolution:

  • In 1878, the Otis company introduced a faster, more economical hydraulic elevator.
  • In 1887, Alexander Miles, an American inventor, patented a mechanism for automatically closing the doors to the elevator shaft. 
  • Joseph Giovanni, an American inventor, patented a safety bumper in 1944 that prevented the elevator doors from closing on a passenger or another obstacle. 
  • Otis Elevators, now owned by Elisha Otis' sons, installed the first control system that automatically controlled the varying speed of elevators in 1924. The system automatically controlled the acceleration, speed between floors, and deceleration as the elevator came to a stop, according to Otis World Wide.
  • Otis Elevators installed an elevator in the newly completed Empire State Building that was capable of traveling 1,200 feet per minute (366 meters per minute), according to Funding Universe Company Histories. The Empire State Building now contains 73 elevators.
  • Otis Elevators introduced microprocessors into their elevator control systems, which they called Elevonic 101, in 1979, which made elevators fully automated, according to Otis World Wide.


As buildings grow, elevators need to be able to keep up with the increased number of floors and the need to deliver passengers to their desired floors quickly. According to CNN, one building in China holds three elevator records: fastest, tallest, and fastest double-deck elevator. Shanghai Tower is the second tallest building in the world at 2,074 feet (632 meters), and its elevator, designed by Mitsubishi Electric Corporation in Japan, travels at 67 feet per second (20.5 meters per second) over 121 floors.

And in the ever-continuing race to build the biggest and best, Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia, to be completed in 2019, will take over the record for the tallest building as well as tallest and perhaps fastest elevator, according to CNN. Standing at a full kilometer in height, various options needed to be reviewed in order to withstand the height and speed requirements of the elevator. Kone, a company based in Finland, has designed and built elevators using carbon-fiber ropes that are strong enough to enable elevators to travel 2,165 feet (660 meters), according to Kone

With the increase in height and speed of elevators, innovators and inventors are constantly improving and introducing new safety features. 

One such improvement includes a patent filed for over-acceleration and over-speed protection by a group of inventors at Otis Elevator Company in 2009. This system detects when the elevator begins to speed and automatically triggers mechanical brake attached to an electromagnetic trigger. Another patent filed in 2011 by Juan Carlos Abad, an inventor from Switzerland, includes a safety circuit that is used to decelerate an elevator in a controlled manner when the emergency stop is activated.

Artist's concept of a space elevator system, looking down at Earth from 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers) up. (Image credit: NASA)


New technologies are being developed and explored to make elevators taller, faster and safer. 

Elevators are even aiming to use magnets in place of ropes. German company ThyssenKrupp is developing an elevator known as MULTI that uses magnetic levitation, according to Business Insider. The elevator will not only be able to reduce the elevator's footprint drastically, it will be able to greatly improve the efficiency of people moving by being able to have multiple cars in each shaft. And like the elevator straight from the movie "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," it can travel horizontally as well as vertically, creating all sorts of new possibilities.

Just how tall can we actually build an elevator? Science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke popularized the idea that an elevator would travel all the way into space in his novel, "Fountains of Paradise." In his novel, a five-hour elevator ride goes from the surface of Earth to a space colony and provides "one of the most breathtaking views you will ever see" of the planet Earth growing smaller as passengers traveled up. 

According to NASA, an elevator to space may actually be possible in the near future. The elevator would extend from a base tower approximately 31 miles (50 kilometers) tall attached to a geostationary satellite 22,236 miles (35786 km) above the Earth. There would be four to six tracks where electromagnetic elevator cars would be able to travel up to thousands of kilometers per hour.

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Rachel Ross
Live Science Contributor

Rachel Ross is a science writer and editor focusing on astronomy, Earth science, physical science and math. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from the University of California Davis and a Master's degree in astronomy from James Cook University. She also has a certificate in science writing from Stanford University. Prior to becoming a science writer, Rachel worked at the Las Cumbres Observatory in California, where she specialized in education and outreach, supplemented with science research and telescope operations. While studying for her undergraduate degree, Rachel also taught an introduction to astronomy lab and worked with a research astronomer.