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10 Amazing Elevator Facts That’ll Take You Straight to the Top

by Selme Angulo
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

If you’re anything like most city dwellers, you probably take an elevator every single day or just about. Whether it’s at your home in an apartment or a condo, or at the office where you have to go up a few (or a lot of) flights to get to your desk, elevators are just a part of life. It seems so simple, too. Just step inside the doors, hit the button of your desired floor, and boom! You’re there in a flash. Nothing to it, nothing to think about, and no problems at all. Plus, depending on how many floors up you’re going, it sure beats walking up a ton of stairs, doesn’t it?

But as it turns out, elevators have a fascinating and important history of their own. They weren’t always as safe and as reliable as they are today. And their invention literally changed how big cities and urban centers were planned, designed, and built. In this list today, we are going to cover all that and then some. Let’s go through ten fascinating and unique elevator-related facts to get you up and moving regarding an invention you probably haven’t ever thought very much about!

Related: 10 Amazing Ancient Buildings Still In Use Today

10 Put Up or Shut Up

Death-Proof Elevator – How We Invented the World

Even after the elevator was invented nearly two centuries ago, riding in one could be seriously dangerous. If the cables snapped or frayed to the point of being broken, riders could plummet to their grisly and tragic deaths. That is until Elisha Otis came along. You know that last name, in all likelihood.

The Otis Elevator Company is all over the place, even today, when it comes to building, maintaining, and repairing elevators. And in the 1850s, Elisha himself started and then quickly changed the elevator business—and put his own life on the line to prove that he’d done so—in a shocking and critical demonstration.

It was in 1854 when the Otis Elevator Company invented and began to slowly market a device that could stop a passenger elevator from falling to the ground if its rope broke. But rather than just tell building managers and architects (and regular old people who rode in elevators all the time) about his invention, Elisha took things one step further.

He went to the World’s Fair at the Crystal Palace in New York City that year and rode an elevator platform high up into the air. Then, he ordered the rope that was holding the elevator aloft to be cut. He didn’t fall to his death—and the crowd looking on went wild at how his elevator had managed to stay safe high up in the sky without plunging downwards. Elevator safety took a very sharp step forward that day, and trust in the technology skyrocketed forever after. Soon, Otis’s design was in nearly every building in New York City and beyond.[1]

9 Turn It up, Please…

What is Muzak? (Elevator Music)

Elevator music tends to have a calming effect on people. Or, at least, that’s what the hope is for how you’ll be feeling as you hear it while riding up a few flights. After all, it’s become something of an insult to music that people don’t like or aren’t interested in. “That sounds like elevator music,” we’ll tell our friends if we think a song is boring or slow to develop. But a century ago, elevator music served a very specific purpose. Well, two purposes, actually. And without it, riding in an elevator a hundred years ago might have been a good deal more awkward and uncomfortable!

See, it all started in the 1920s when elevator operators and building managers began piping music into their elevator cars. At the time, people were nervous about riding in elevators. Especially in very tall buildings in places like New York City, the worry was that elevators would regularly come crashing down and injure (or worse) the riders. Even Elisha Otis’s aforementioned safety demonstration didn’t do much to quell the public’s fears.

So operators opted for music to let people be a bit more at ease inside the elevator car and keep their minds off their possibly imminent deaths. And that wasn’t all! Elevators back then moved a lot slower than elevators today. So it was sensible to have something going on inside the car to mask awkward silences that could last a decent amount of time. And with those two needs in mind, elevator music was born![2]

8 Straight to the Top!

How Elevators Changed the World | Origins: The Journey of Humankind

You can thank elevators for city skylines like those in New York City, London, Tokyo, Jakarta, and other places all around the globe. No, seriously. Without major advancements in elevator technology in the 19th and then early 20th centuries, skyscrapers would not be a thing in major urban centers. The reason for it is (or should be) pretty damn obvious.
After all, having a 40- or 50- or 100-story building with only flights of stairs to the top means that people working high up have to spend way, way too long (and expend far too much energy) walking up and down to get to their offices. Sure, they might be very fit and trim after doing that every day, but it’s not exactly a sustainable expectation to make office workers do that for their entire careers. So when Elisha Otis installed the first elevator in a public building in 1857 in New York City, it completely changed the way people worked—and lived.

Thus, prior to the elevator taking off (pun intended) as a reliable means of moving people, many buildings were two and three stories max—even in large cities. That all changed through the 19th century as elevators came into prominence. People already wanted to live in cities where the jobs were after the Industrial Revolution. That building managers and architects could make their designs and creations go all the way to the sky was even better for all involved.

More offices, more apartments, more people packed into city blocks, and more money to go around in collecting rents and mortgages. Cities like New York and London exploded in population through the 19th century. Before long, the modern skyscraper was a fixture in any area where commerce was done. And it all came about because the elevator made city life much more efficient and doable.[3]

7 The Greeks Did It First

Archimedes and a Boat Lift: the Falkirk Wheel

While elevators may have been responsible for the birth of the modern skyscraper, they were around WAY before that. Yes, the ancient Greeks were the first to create a primitive elevator system. Specifically, the genius Archimedes did it, designing in 236 BC the first pulley contraption that could lift and lower people, goods, and animals from one level to another.

According to the writings of Vitruvius, Archimedes was responsible for putting together a rudimentary elevator that involved a water wheel as a base mechanism. Then, he would tie hoisting ropes around animals and/or have lots of people lift the platform with the ropes until the pulleys had brought it upward to its intended destination on a higher floor.

The Romans used this style of elevator quite a bit, too. In ancient Rome, the Colosseum stood above a subterranean series of rooms, tunnels, and animal pens. When it was time for gladiators and/or large animals to go into the ring and do battle for paying crowds, hundreds of men would use counterweights and winches to pull the platforms upward toward the ring.

Those large animals (and those large gladiators!) were then raised carefully and surprisingly quickly up into the open, where they could perform for their lives in the arena. It wasn’t the same technology we have today, of course, but the purpose remained true. So, in that sense, elevators are actually a few thousand years old![4]

6 Top Floor, Please… and Step on It!

Riding the World’s Fastest Elevator – Shanghai Tower

The fastest elevator in the world belongs to the Shanghai Tower in the massive Chinese city. That elevator can reach speeds of up to 45 miles per hour (or about 72 kilometers per hour) when it races from the ground floor or even the basement below all the way up to the top of the 119th floor far above Shanghai.

In fact, the Shanghai Tower’s elevator actually holds the Guinness World Record for being the fastest elevator in a building worldwide. So it’s not just wildly quick in reaching speeds of up to 45 mph on its run up and down the tower, but it’s historically quick. What would Elisha Otis say about a speedy run like this, we wonder?!

The exact time that it takes to get the elevator from its lowest floor to its highest is itself pretty crazy, too. According to Mitsubishi Electric, the Nextway lift can go from the second-level basement of the Shanghai Tower all the way up to the top of the 119th floor in just 53 seconds. At top speed and without stopping for anyone along the way, that means the lift rockets upward at the rate of about 67 feet per second (20 meters per second).

It’s a stunning mechanical achievement—and one we can’t imagine would be undertaken without some serious vertigo. Then again, the ride is supposedly incredibly smooth, so maybe there’s no way to even feel like you’re hurtling upward into space! Just don’t press every single floor button on the way back down unless you’ve got about a day to waste…[5]

5 Jump on Quick!

The Paternoster: Europe’s Doorless Elevator

Not all elevators were created back in the day like the ones we think of now. Sure, Elisha Otis and others built elevator contraptions with things like doors, buttons for each floor, and even elevator doormen to assist the lift as it crawled up and down.

But in Europe in the early 20th century, there was a completely different style of elector that grew very popular for a time. It was called the Paternoster Elevator, or alternatively the Paternoster Lift, and it was made unique by a few different traits. For one, it never stopped on any floor. Ever. It just went up and down slowly through the building. And the other weird fact of the Paternoster Lift: It had no doors!

Basically, the Paternoster design was something like a constantly open elevator shaft with a platform that slowly rose up and down the building. Because it had no doors, it required people to just jump on quickly when it came time to go where they wanted to go. Then, when they got to their desired floor, they simply stepped off the Paternoster as it kept crawling slowly up or down to its next destination.

We’re all familiar with escalators, right? Think of it like that but for a primitive century-old elevator. It was just a continuously moving lift that made its riders stay focused on their stop before having to act quickly and smoothly to hop off at the right time.[6]

4 And They’re Still Working!

Paternoster Lifts: Dangerous, Obsolete and Quite Fun (including over the top!)

Speaking of the Paternoster, some are even still in use today. While they aren’t the preferred style of elevator for most people in big cities and tall buildings all around the world, they definitely still exist. In fact, the oldest working elevator still in use just so happens to be a Paternoster model that can be found at the Oriel Chambers building in the city of Liverpool, England. That particular elevator—which has since been modernized a bit but is still in active use—was designed and put into operation way back in 1868. And it’s still going strong today!

The Paternoster there was developed by a British engineer named Peter Hart, who had spent years working on an elevator design before finally getting patents for his “Cyclic Elevator.” After Hart’s design took hold in Liverpool and London, they soon became very popular elsewhere in Europe. They were efficient and easy to use, and they only broke down very rarely.

That the Oriel Chambers one is still in use might just attest to that. After all, we’re talking about a lift that is nearly 200 years old at this point! There are other paternosters still working and in normal use elsewhere in Britain, too. One operates at Sheffield University, for example. But none are as old as the one at the Oriel Chambers that’s been cycling through time ever since just after the American Civil War![7]

3 Eiffel’s Secret Elevator

What Is Inside The Secret Apartment

Elevators can be in some secret and entirely unexpected places. Take, for example, the Eiffel Tower. Paris’s iconic structure boasts several elevators that are available for the public, including three in the North, East, and West pillars, which are meant for visitors to use if they wish to trek up high in a more effortless fashion. Also, there is a fourth public elevator there, which is meant for use by customers of the Jules Verne restaurant situated high up inside the Eiffel Tower. But did you know there is also a secret elevator that was meant for one man—and one man only—during his lifetime?

That man was none other than the tower’s namesake, Gustave Eiffel. While designing the landmark, the French man made sure to build himself a very small apartment on the absolute top level of the tower. Up there, he put in plush rugs and oil paintings, and he even set up a grand piano. To get there, he specifically put in a small and hidden-away private elevator that only he could use—and his friends, of course.

However, very few other people ever went up high in the Eiffel Tower to Gustave’s apartment. Some VIPs were allowed to visit over the years, including world-renowned scientist Thomas Edison. But for the most part, Gustave kept that apartment (and its high-speed, private elevator) virtually all to himself![8]

2 Don’t Touch That!

Touchless Link by Nouveau | Touchless Elevator Button Solution

Scientific studies have consistently shown that elevators are very common and relentless sources for spreading germs from person to person. It makes sense, really. Not only is it an enclosed and very small space that doesn’t get a ton of airflow aside from the brief times when the doors open, but it’s also a spot that everybody visits inside a building. And, most importantly, it’s a place where everyone’s grimy hands paw at the buttons again and again and again. When cold and flu season comes around, then it makes sense that everyone carrying germs would leave a few here and there on the “first-floor” button, the “door close” button, or anywhere else within the elevator when it’s their turn to ride up or down.

This has become such a serious problem, in fact, that scientists have studied the issue of germs spreading within elevators at hospitals. Experts have long been worried about how button-pushing can lead to spreading pathogens to sick patients with decreased immune systems.

In response, though, elevator companies, architects, and building design technologists alike have been coming up with ways to have touchless elevators. It won’t completely eliminate the spread of germs, of course. But not having hundreds (or thousands) of people all touching the same few buttons day after day after day at the height of flu season might just make a big difference in keeping infections at bay.[9]

1 Relying on Backup Brakes

Why Movies Are Wrong About Elevator Free Falls – Cheddar Explains

In the modern age, elevator plunges are very, very rare. Sure, there are times when you might get stuck in an elevator for a bit while attendants have to come out and fix the thing. That, without question, is very annoying and frustrating. But it’s not deadly! (Well, uh, we hope.)

The deadliest option for an elevator in use would be something like a cable snapping and a relentless plunge down to the ground floor at high speeds. But not only are cables made of ultra-durable and reliable steel and other things, but elevators themselves also have some serious braking technology that prevents plunges and ensures nobody lands on the ground floor severely injured, even in the worst-case scenarios.

Like cars and other fast-moving creations, elevators have emergency brakes that are ready to be used at the worst times. The difference with these lift brakes, as opposed to the manually controlled hand-pull ones on your car, though, is that it is automated.

The elevator can track its own speed as it goes down. If it hits a rate deemed excessive for the lift in question, the emergency brakes will automatically apply themselves. This, in turn, will stop the elevator from going into a freefall on its way down to your destination. So fear not! Elevators are super-safe with routine inspections and backup systems like the emergency brakes, ensuring a smooth and easy ride.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen