Elevator tech: A primer

The modern elevator industry launched with a PR stunt.

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The history of elevator technology stretches back at least 2,000 years to human- and animal-powered hoists. But the modern elevator industry began with a  public relations stunt. During the 1853-’54 New York World’s Fair, Elisha Otis rose above the audience in the Crystal Palace, perched on a platform lifted by a rope within an open-sided shaft.

Halfway up, Otis ordered an axeman to cut the rope. He dropped a few inches before his locking safety brake prevented the platform from falling. Orders for Otis passenger elevators took off. 

Today most buildings use traction elevators not unlike their late 19th-century counterparts: Traction elevators feature a cab and a counterweight attached to woven steel cables. The cables are raised and lowered by a motorized sheave at the top of the shaft and halted by a system of brakes. Guide rails installed vertically in the shaft direct the course of travel. An emergency exit opens only from the exterior of the cab’s roof. 

Elevator engineering concepts have not changed substantially over the past century. Electricity replaced steam power, woven steel cables replaced hemp ropes and lighter carbon-fiber ropes (such as KONE’s UltraRope) are beginning to replace steel.

Where control systems were once manually operated by an elevator attendant, artificial intelligence now drives a new breed of so-called “smart elevators,” available in big cities like New York. These machines decrease ride times by learning traffic patterns and grouping passengers together based on common destination floors.

Due to Portland’s building-height restrictions and relatively small population, the city is unlikely to see the kinds of vertical-transportation innovations appearing in megalopolises such as Dubai, where Otis double-deck lifts speed 20 miles per hour up and down the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest structure.

But emerging technology may eventually redefine how elevators move Oregonians: After years of testing, Thyssenkrupp has recently unveiled magnetic-levitation-powered elevators that forego cables entirely. They can zip up, down, sideways and diagonally — a Willy Wonka-like invention nearly as dramatic as Otis’ legendary rope-cutting feat.

Related Story: Shafted



This post is a companion piece to Shafted, our in-depth feature about elevator malfunction.