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Elisha Otis Inventions: The Creative American Industrialist

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The man behind the world’s first elevator to have safety locks, saving it from falling upon failure of the main overhead lifting cable, preventing the falling hoist platform from crashing on the ground was Elisha Otis.

Elisha Otis was an American engineer and innovator who invented a safety device that changed the fate of high-rise buildings and gave rise to modern-day elevators. Before we talk about this great American inventor, let’s discuss what an elevator is.

According to the modern dictionary, an elevator is a track, cable, or hydraulic cylinder-assisted machine that is used to vertically transport man or freight up and down the deck, levels, or floor. These elevators are generally powered by traction motors that run on electricity and use counterweights and hoists as their principal mechanism. However, lifts using hydraulic cylinders use a hydraulic pump to push weights along with cylindrical pistons, upwards.

In the modern-day world, elevators have become a necessity due to the ever-rising population of metropolitan and urban areas, which have resulted in an increase in height and the number of high-rise buildings. These elevators have now become a must in almost every skyscraper. From the heights of the tallest modern monuments, like the Eiffel Tower, to the depths of the earth, elevators have helped in making our lives much easier and more convenient. With present-day management systems, governments in most countries have made it mandatory for high-rise buildings to have elevators, especially for people with disabilities. The first designs of elevators can be traced back to ancient Rome, however, the designs advanced in the 1800s.

Otis Elisha Graves was born on August 3, 1811. He was an American businessman who founded the Otis Elevator Company. Otis had multiple inventions and patents in his name. He made several efforts towards making the elevator safe for public use and convenience by adding a safety device that worked in case the lifting cable failed.

Elisha Otis designed his first elevator as a medium for lifting heavy building materials, while he was converting an old mill into a factory, in New York. Although hoist systems had existed for more than 2000 years, Otis still needed a safety mechanism that protected a falling hoist platform from crashing onto the ground as a safety necessity. For this purpose, he used materials like wooden guide rails with teeth on them, placed on either side of the elevator shaft. A spring was fitted on top of the lift on either side, with the hoisting cables running through it. If the hoisting cable ever broke, it would lead to contraction of the wagon spring which would activate the safety mechanism and push the notches into toothed guide rails, thereby locking the hoist platform at that position and leading it to a complete stop.

Along with his sons Norton and Charles Otis, Otis founded his company Union Elevator and General Machine Works.

Early Years Of Elisha Otis' Invention

Did you know that the fastest elevator in the world travels at a speed of 46 mph (74 kph) which means that this lift can reach an elevation of more than 330 ft (100 m) in less than five seconds? 

Similarly, did you know that the highest elevator in the world has a height of 1075 ft (326 m), and what’s more interesting is that the elevator is used to climb a mountain? But did you know that modern elevators wouldn’t have come into being without the contribution of the American mastermind Elisha Otis?

Elisha Otis was born in Halifax where he lived with his parents Stephan Otis and Phoebe Glynn. At the age of 19, Elisha moved away from his house in an attempt to achieve something big and all by himself.

At first, Elisha settled in Troy, New York City, where he got himself employed as a wagon driver. Later on, he got married to Susan A Houghton in the year 1834. Together, Elisha and Susan had two children whom they named Charles and Norton.

In 1835, Otis suffered from pneumonia which nearly got him killed but he somehow managed to move his family to Vermont after living in Troy for five years. In Vermont Hills, Otis built and designed his own gristmill but was not able to earn enough money from his creation.

In the first year of his company, Elisha Otis got a few orders but his fortune changed after he participated in the York World’s Fair held at Crystal Palace in New York City where the inventor demonstrated the working of his elevator. The American inventor and master mechanic debuted his safety elevator at the Crystal Palace Exhibition of New York in the year 1853. Therein, Otis presented his elevator that had an automatic braking system, the working of which was demonstrated by Otis himself as he stood on the hoist platform with a man to cut the hoisting cable on his call. This demonstration proved to be a turning point for his company and after this, he started receiving several orders for his safe elevator more regularly.

But his enthusiasm did not end here, Otis went on to design a steam engine-controlled elevator which he patented in the year 1862. With this, his business flourished and Otis laid the foundation of his strong business which was later carried forward by his sons Charles and Norton after their father's death. Their company later came to be known as Otis Elevator Company.

Later he converted this business into a sawmill but failed miserably in business and was not able to earn enough money. With increasing responsibilities, Otis began to manufacture wagons and carriages, a work he was pretty good at. Unfortunately, his wife died a few years later leaving behind Otis and her two sons.

Setback Of Elisha Otis' Invention

In hopes of a fresh start, Elisha Otis Got married at the age of 34. He moved to Albany, New York, where he made his living by making dolls under Otis Tingley. His work as a doll maker got him skilled but after having a tiresome day, Otis only managed to make 10 to 12 dolls a day.

Annoyed with this, Otis invented a Robot Turner which could produce bedsteads much faster than one could do manually. He got his invention patented and also earned a bonus from his boss.

Over the years, Otis left his job to start his own business in a leased building in New York. At first, he designed safety brakes that could be used to stop train wagons much faster than the contemporary ones. He also invented an automatic oven for baking bread. But his business suffered a major setback after the stream which he used as his power supply was diverted away from his workshop to the city of Albany. Following this, he moved to Bergen City, New Jersey in 1851, where he worked as a mechanic.

After this, he went to Yonkers, New York where he was given the responsibility of converting a sawmill into a bedstead factory. This was the point where his fortune was about to change.

Otis is also credited with discovering automatic safety brakes to stop trains instantly.

Final Success With His Invention

One day while Otis was cleaning up the factory, he thought he could get rid of all the debris and unused heavy equipment by getting it stored in the upper floors of the workshop.

He heard of hoisting platforms being extremely risky as they often tend to crash due to the failure of the hoisting cable and fall down the elevator shaft. His two sons, the Otis brothers, we're also inventors, who used to actively participate in their father’s work. Together with his sons, Otis designed a safety elevator and tested it successfully in his workshop.

At first, he thought his invention was so inconsiderate that he neither applied for a patent nor did he ask for a bonus from his employer. Soon the popularity of his innovation picked up pace and Otis got an opportunity to set up a company which he named Union Elevator Works, which later came to be known as Otis Brothers and Company.

His company did not gain popularity for several months until the York World’s Fair was held in New York in 1853. Otis used this golden opportunity to showcase his product on an international platform. He gathered a crowd and asked the axeman to cut the only rope which was cut holding the hoisted platform.

As soon as the rope was severed, the mechanism developed by Otis locked the platform after it went down a few inches. Seeing this demonstration people developed a sense of trust towards the new product which was much safer than conventional elevators. Soon this patented technology became commonly used in almost all elevators which soon skyrocketed the number of skyscrapers.

The next year, Otis showcased his safety elevator at the Crystal Palace World Fair where he stood on the elevated platform and repeated the same stunt. This magnificent demonstration changed the fortune of his company.

Last Years And Death

With his success, Otis received multiple orders that doubled every year. He innovated further with this elevator and developed different types for a multitude of conveniences.

Over time, Otis also made several improvements to his safety elevator but despite all the hard work, he never managed to keep his business successful.

Despite these anomalies, his name is still remembered as one of the greatest American innovators. His innovation for the passenger elevator is still being used in many major landmarks in America like the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, and even the Eiffel Tower in Paris. He contracted diphtheria and soon passed away on April 8, 1861, leaving behind the management of his company to his sons Charles and Norton.

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