Smithsonian.com Explores the “Strange World That is the Escalator”

Detail from Jesse Reno’s 1902 patent for the “Inclined Elevator”; U.S. Patent 708,663 via Smithsonian.com

Smithsonian.com recently explored the “strange world that is the escalator” in “How the Escalator Forever Changed Our Sense of Space.” The piece takes readers through the early history of the invention, from a never-realized 1859 patent for “revolving stairs,” to Jesse Reno’s mechanical escalator that debuted to awestruck crowds in Coney Island, New York, to the piece of machinery most similar to the escalator of today — conceived by Charles Seeberger around the same time as Reno’s invention and acquired and marketed by Otis. The escalator stole the spotlight at the Paris Exposition of 1900, and quickly proved transformative to retail, the workplace and public transportation.

Of the Paris Expo, Smithsonian observed:

“Organizers and government officials were concerned how this exposition would make its mark — after the introduction of the Eiffel Tower at the fair in 1889, how could the [fair] 11 years later complete? Officials entertained many bizarre proposals, many of which involved alterations of the Eiffel Tower itself including the potential additions of clocks, sphinxes, terrestrial globes, and a 450-ft. statue of a woman with eyes made from powerful searchlights to scan the 562-acre fairgrounds.” It ended up, however, that the escalator “shone brightest” at the expo, winning Grand Prize and a Gold Metal for its “unique and functional design”

Otis trademarked the name “escalator,” but, like cellophane, kitty litter and aspirin, the term became so ubiquitous that competitor Haughton — since acquired by Schindler — successfully petitioned the US Patent and Trademark Office to cancel the trademark. Today, Otis and Schindler continue to be major players in a world in which the number of escalators doubles every 10 years.

thyssenkrupp escalator installation in Germany; photo courtesy of thyssenkrupp

Deep Thinking

Escalator illustration; Image by Pexels from Pixabay

The designers of Chongqing, China’s subway system were deep thinkers when it came to the Hongtudi station, and commuters there should know: It takes a five-minute ride on six escalators to reach the Line 10 platform, some 308 ft below street level – a depth equivalent to the height of an approximately 31-story building. The Daily Mail reports that when the station opened in 2016 as part of subway system’s Line 6, it was, at 196 ft below ground level, the deepest transit station in China. That record was broken a year later, when the station was connected to Line 10. Why so deep? China’s CCTV says it was necessary to avoid damaging air-raid shelters and the foundations of nearby buildings. While it takes a little time to reach the platform, the escalators likely are the most popular way to go: the alternative is a stairway with 354 steps. To get an idea of what the ride down is like, check out the video.

Court Hears Lawsuit Over Failure to Hold Handrail

She didn’t want to hold the handrail, but a woman in Canada refuses to release her grip on a case that began with her arrest 10 years ago in a subway station in the Montreal suburb of Laval. And, though charges against her were eventually dismissed, she felt like police and the city should be punished for the way she was treated. This week, the Canadian Supreme Court agreed to hear her side, CTV News reports.

It was in 2009 when a police officer saw Bela Kosoian riding the escalator without holding the handrail, even though the escalator was marked with a pictogram instructing riders to do so. An argument ensued, and Kosoian was ultimately detained for about 30 minutes, during which time she was handed a CAD100 (US$75) ticket for failing to hold the rail, and a CAD320 (US$240) ticket for refusing to identify herself to the officer. Her case was heard in municipal court in 2012, and she was acquitted of the charges. For the way she was treated, she filed a lawsuit against the city, the transit corporation and the police officer. Her case was twice rejected in Quebec courts, but the nation’s highest court took it up, and heard arguments on Tuesday. During the proceedings, Justice Clement Gascon said, “I suppose if we were to give out tickets to people not holding the handrail, we’d be issuing hundreds per hour.” There was no immediate indication of when the court might rule.