Elevators Have Long History of Innovation, Mishaps

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The New York Times reports a woman was crushed to death when a freak elevator accident happened near Grand Central Station. Suzanne Hart was a 41-year-old advertising executive who was stepping into the car when it suddenly closed its doors and went up. Her leg was pinned in the door while her body prevented the elevator from going up. Two people in the car were unhurt. The building was constructed in the 1920s.

Here's a look at the history of elevators, including their unfortunate breakdowns.


The San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2008 that elevators in some form had been around since ancient Greece. However, it wasn't until the Industrial Revolution that safety features were installed and buildings could be made even taller.

Elisha Otis was credited with creating a safer elevator car in 1853. MIT states Otis showed off his invention at the Crystal Palace Exposition. A new safety feature was made to catch the elevator car should the cable break. A toothed guide rail on the side of the car engaged when the cable broke and stopped the fall. Suddenly, taller buildings were a possibility.

PBS states another person named Otis helped patent the passenger elevator. In 1859, Otis Tufts created an elevator powered by steam. It used a nuts and bolts system of safety. As a screw turned, the car ran upward like a vertical railroad system. One Tufts elevator was used in the Fifth Avenue Hotel for 15 years without an accident. The only problem was that Tufts' system was more expensive than the one created by Otis.


Hydraulic systems eventually replaced steam-driven elevators in the 1870s. From 1887 to 1903, electricity became the way elevators were powered. Systems evolved from gear-driven cars to electric motors that turn winches to hoist the cars. As power became more reliable, buildings got taller as elevators became the norm rather than the exception.

Forbes Magazine states contemporary skyscrapers have ultra-fast elevators. Super tall buildings in Asia and the Middle East have six of the 10 fastest elevators on the planet. All but one of the top 10 was built since 1993. The Burj Dubai, the world's tallest building, has express elevators that go as fast as 20 mph up and down the building.


Accidents with elevator cars are rare. Deaths are even more uncommon. Since they are electrical devices, when power goes out there can be difficulties. Even with safety features, sometimes people can become trapped in elevators for minutes or even hours. NPR reported in January 2010 that 14 people became trapped in an elevator in the Burj Dubai and then were brought to safety within 15 minutes. No one has died actually in an elevator, according to the public radio piece.

However, people do die from falling in elevator shafts that don't have elevator cars at the doors. CBSPhilly.com reported in June that man was celebrating his 25th birthday when he fell down an elevator shaft in the dark. It was an old elevator with a gate you had to open manually before you get into it.

The New York Times reported in November 2009 drummer Gerhardt Fuchs fell to his death when an old cargo elevator became stuck between floors in a building. When he tried to jump down to the fourth floor, his jacket got caught on something and he fell four stories to the bottom of the shaft.

William Browning is a research librarian.

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