Elisha Otis planned to join the California gold rush to find his fortune. As it turned out, his fortune was closer to home. Elisha had devised a “hoist machine,” a fairly simple affair that would prevent a rising platform from falling if the ropes that held it broke. On September 20, 1853, he sold his first machine and not only launched his business, but made possible the development of passenger elevators which in turn allowed buildings to rise higher and higher, from five or six stories max to a hundred or more.
Otis opened his small business in Yonkers, New York, along with with his sons Charles and Norton. After a couple or orders, however, business dried up. Otis came up with a plan to have P. T. Barnum publicly demonstrate his device at America’s first world’s fair in New York City in 1854. An open elevator platform was installed at the center of the Crystal Palace exposition hall upon which Otis hoisted himself to the ceiling by means of a rope. There to the oohs and aahs of the crowd below, he produced a sword and cut the rope. The platform plummeted downward, but Otis’ safety brake engaged and brought the elevator to a dramatic stop. “All safe, gentlemen, all safe,” Otis declared triumphantly. And the elevator industry was launched – 27 sold in the next two years.
Otis installed the first passenger elevator in 1857, at a department store in New York City. And then came the skyscrapers. The ten-story Home Insurance Company Building in Chicago, serviced by four passenger elevators, was followed in 1913 by the Woolworth Building with 26 elevators and the Empire State Building in 1931 with 58. Automatic self-service elevators came to Dallas, Texas, in 1950. Twenty years later, elevators in Chicago’s John Hancock Center barreled between floors at 1,800 feet per minute. Before its destruction in 2001, New York’s 110-story World Trade Center operated 252 elevators and 71 escalators, all manufactured by Otis, a company that, for more than 150 years, has weathered the ups and downs of the business.