Vermont-born tinkerer Elisha Otis thought so little of the safety elevator he invented that he didn’t bother to get a patent for it.
P.T. Barnum thought pretty highly of it, though. He offered Otis $100 to demonstrate the device before a crowd at the Crystal Palace, built for the 1853 New York World’s Fair.
Otis donned a top hat, mounted the platform and hoisted it high above the crowd. Once he had the crowd’s attention, he gave the signal for an assistant to cut the cable with an axe. The axe fell, the cable snapped and the spectators screamed – but the platform plunged only two feet.
“All safe gentlemen, all safe,” Otis calmly assured the crowd.
Elisha Otis was born in Halifax, Vt., on Aug. 3, 1811, the youngest of six children. He learned woodworking and tool-making on the family farm.
He left the farm and dabbled in a number of businesses: a gristmill, carpentry, freight hauling, carriage making. In 1845 he moved to Troy, N.Y., with his second wife (his first died) and two sons, Charles and Norton. He made dolls for a while.
Then he got a job in Yonkers, N.Y., converting an old sawmill into a bedstead factory. To move debris from the first floor to the upper levels, Otis invented a hoisting platform. It had a spring mechanism that prevented the platform from falling even if the cables broke.
He built a few more safety hoists for his boss in 1852, but then the bedstead factory closed down. Otis decided to form his own company. It didn’t do too well. At the end of 1853 the business had $122.71, two oil cans and a secondhand lathe.
P.T. Barnum saw the entertainment potential in the hoist platform. He persuaded Elisha Otis to demonstrate his the device in New York City.
The demonstration was so successful the company got orders to build three dozen freight platforms over the next two years. In 1857, the first passenger elevator was installed at 488 Broadway, a china and glass company.
Elisha Otis didn’t have long to live though. He died at 49 on April 8, 1861, leaving the company to his two sons. They carried on capably. Within 11 years, they installed 2,000 Otis elevators in high-rise hotels, office buildings and apartment buildings – made possible by the safety elevator.
With thanks to Here is where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History by Andrew Carroll. “Elisha Otis 1853” by an unknown artist, licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. This story was updated in 2022.