Today in 1857, the first commercial elevator began operating, at a five-story department store in New York City.

It wasn’t the first elevator, but it was a pretty important one.

The spread of the elevator helped shape the world around us in some pretty big ways.


The inventor behind this elevator was Elisha Otis, a Vermont native who set up a shop in Yonkers, New York.

His key invention was called the safety hoist.

If the lifting mechanism on an elevator failed, a brake would keep the elevator – and the people inside it – from plummeting down.

In 1854 he demonstrated the system in a pretty dramatic way: at New York City’s Crystal Palace, he rode the elevator up – and then cut the only cord holding it there.

The safety hoist got to work and kept him from falling.

From there sales at Otis’s elevator company began to, well, climb.

Not only did that put an elevator inside that department store in NYC, it also got building designers thinking big.

With safety elevators in place, office buildings, apartments, and shopping centers could be built much higher than ever before.

So cities started getting taller.

Skyscrapers started going up, and the famous skylines of places like New York City started taking shape.

In a way, once we figured out how to safely go down, we could build up.

Plus, now we have elevator jokes.

Like the one about the crook on the elevator: what he did was wrong on so many levels.

Elevators are mostly for buildings, but not always.

In Oregon City, Oregon, there’s a municipal elevator that’s technically a street!

The community has had an elevator in place for over a century to connect the businesses at lower elevation to the residents who lived on a bluff 100 foot higher.

They don’t have many block parties on Elevator Street though.

March 23, 1857: Mr. Otis Gives You a Lift (Wired)

Oregon City is home of America’s steepest street (Offbeat Oregon)

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Elevator photo by Kathleen Leavitt Cragun via Flickr/Creative Commons