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

A Visit to the Elevator Museum in Massachusetts

Text and Photos by Caleb Givens

The International Union of Elevator Constructors Local 4 Union Hall is tucked behind a few industrial facilities in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Housed in this building, in a large, open conference room, is the Elevator Museum. It is the shining physical presence of the Elevator Historical Society’s efforts to preserve the history of the elevator and escalator industry.

Your author visited Steve Comley, who is truly taking the museum from good to great. Comley is a longtime elevator man, getting his taste of the industry at an early age, thanks to his father, James, who purchased Embree and White Elevator in Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1972. “I loved the dirty old elevator machine shop,” recalls Comley. “It was fascinating to me as a kid — the noise from the flat-belt pulleys running across the ceiling, the smell of the cutting oils on the machines and the smoke from the welding. They used to cast and completely build elevator machines there.”

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Elevators for Elevators in Buffalo

During the first half of the 20th century, Buffalo, New York, had the largest capacity for grain storage in the U.S. with more than 30 concrete grain elevators along the Buffalo River and Lake Erie. In addition to serving as monuments to a former prosperity  — the first grain elevator was built in Buffalo in 1842 and the last in the 1950s — the structures boast distinct historical features. Some of the remaining 20-odd facilities are being preserved and even reborn, such as one that is now a mixed-use building, Silos at Elk Street, that serves as headquarters for Young + Wright Architectural. After buying the property for only around US$5,000 at auction, the firm poured approximately US$3 million into its transformation, which includes an elevator (of the vertical-transportation, rather than grain-storage, variety). Young + Wright tells ELEVATOR WORLD the transformation includes a five-stop elevator by Schindler in a five-story, brick building that formerly housed drying operations for grain used to make beer. “We have not actually touched the silos portion of our building,” the firm’s Mark Gallivan says. So, this post might be a little misleading in that the elevator is not actually located in the former grain elevator. However, an elevator in a grain elevator could be coming to Buffalo soon as part of Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.’s plan to transform the circa 1915 Connecting Terminal on the Outer Harbor into a public attraction with an outdoor viewing deck. The Connecting Terminal is already home to nightly light shows.

The five-stop Schindler elevator that serves the offices.