40-year-old Elisha Otis worked as a mechanic and floor manager at a bedframe factory. In order to protect his employees from injury, Otis would have to come up with some type of braking system. Working with his sons to conceive and test ideas during his spare time, he produced a “safety elevator” that would lock in place if the lifting cable snapped. Upon installing the system at his employer’s factory in 1852, he received no recognition for the project. He tried to sell the elevators and managed to sell three in 1853 for US $300 each. Then sales slumped with no sell in 1853 or early 1854. He decided to promote his invention by showing it at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in New York City in May 1854.
Perched on a hoisting platform high above the crowd at New York’s Crystal Palace, Otis shocked the crowd when he dramatically cut the only rope suspending the platform on which he was standing. The platform dropped a few inches, but then came to a stop. His revolutionary new safety brake had worked, stopping the platform from crashing to the ground. “All safe, gentlemen!” the man proclaimed. With this demonstration, sales shot up: He sold seven in the remainder of 1854, 15 in 1855 and so on..
Otis elevators were used to lift goods and employees into the higher levels of a building. On March 23, 1857, that all changed. The first Otis commercial passenger elevator, installed at 488 Broadway in New York City, created new levels of safety — and spurred architects and engineers to push future designs ever upward. The E.V. Haughwout and Company department store opened an elevator to carry customers up and down between the store’s five floors. By the 1930s, the fruits of Otis’ labor were evident. Skyscrapers dotted the New York skyline, with the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building quickly turning into world icons just as new designers came up with plans to reach further into the atmosphere. With each successive advance in elevator technology, the structures themselves grew. Nowadays, with the opening of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, man can stand almost 2,000 feet above the street in air-conditioned comfort after a brief ride to the top. Moving at almost 40mph, the elevators are an astonishing 90 times faster than the design installed by Otis at the Haughwout Building in 1857.