How the lift transformed the shape of our cities
We don’t tend to think of lifts as mass transportation systems, but that’s what they are. They move hundreds of millions of people every day, and China alone is thought to be installing 660,000 lifts a year.
The tallest building in the world, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, has more than 300,000 sq m (3.2 million sq ft) of floor space. The brilliantly engineered Sears Tower in Chicago has more than 400,000.
Imagine slicing such skyscrapers into 50 or 60 low-rise chunks, then surrounding each chunk with a car park and connecting all the car parks together with roads. You’d have an office park the size of a small town.
The fact that so many people can work together in huge buildings on compact sites is only possible because of the lift.
The power for Louis’s secret love-lift was supplied by a chap in a chimney breast, standing ready to haul on a rope when required.
Other lifts in Hungary, China and Egypt were powered by animals.
Steam power went further.
Matthew Boulton and James Watt – giants of Britain’s industrial revolution – produced steam engines that ran muscular industrial lifts that hauled coal up from the mines.
But while these lifts worked well enough, you wouldn’t want to use them to lift people to any serious height, because – inevitably – something would go wrong.
The lift would plunge down the shaft, loose ends of the rope flapping in the darkness, passengers screaming into oblivion.
Most people can walk up five flights of stairs if they must.
Nobody would want to take a lift to such a deadly height.
So what mattered was making a lift that was not only safe, but demonstrably safe.
Both the innovation and the demonstration fell to a man named Elisha Otis.