It all began with the hoist.
The origin of the hoist is very old, and pulley and winch systems have been in use since ancient times to draw water or raise building materials. Indeed, thousands of years ago hoists must have played a fundamental role in the construction of the great pyramids of Egypt.
The first documented proof of their use, however, comes from Greece, in 236 B.C., when Greek mathematician, physicist and inventor Archimedes invented a hoist device with rope and pulley, whereby a hoist rope was wrapped around a capstan and manpower used to pull a lever to turn the drum. It is believed three such devices were first used in the Roman Emperor Nero’s palace. Hoists using human workers as counterweights to draw water from a well or using simple manpower to raise loads were both believed to be in use in ancient Rome. It is also said that the Emperor Napoleon built a caged chair so that the Empress could ascend staircases without effort.
Elevators in some form or another have been in use through the eras of human, water and steam power. The mid 19th century marked the dawning of the age of electricity, and developments in elevator technology was being driven by the appearance of the first high-rise buildings in the United States, which necessitated the development of elevators in order to make them practical. As such, the United States emerged as the center of elevator technology development for decades.
A big breakthrough came in 1853, when Elisha Graves Otis solved the problem of rope failure that plagued contemporary elevators. He installed a rope-break safety device called the safety brake (the equivalent of the modern safety gear) into the elevator. With the Otis safety brake, in the case of rope failure, a spring would force a ratchet to engage sawtooth iron bars and safely secure the car. In 1854, Otis demonstrated the safety brake by boarding his elevator at the Crystal Palace in New York and cutting the traditional hemp rope himself. The safety brake worked flawlessly, making a dramatic presentation, and establishing a legend that lives in the industry, and the popular imagination, to this day.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, in England, Frost and Stutt successfully developed a counterbalance-type, traction-method elevator called the “Teagle”, in 1853. Frost and Stutt’s Teagle and Otis’ safety brake became fundamental elevator safety features, thus ushering in the age of the safe elevator. Architects were able to let their imaginations soar skyward, and city skylines would never be the same.
The world’s first passenger service elevator was installed in a five-story hotel on Broadway in New York, in 1857. Manufactured by the Otis Elevator Company, it was steam-powered, carried a maximum load of 450 kilograms (992 lbs.), and boasted a top speed of 12 meters per minute (39.4 ft./min.). Until then, rooms on the upper floors of hotels were considered undesirable due to the necessity of climbing numerous stairs with baggage in tow. From that day forward, however, the upper floor rooms, especially the penthouse, could be let at a premium, due to easy access to their superior views.
In 1867, the practicality of the hydraulic-power elevator was recognized when Leon Edoux exhibited one at the Paris Exposition. With a top speed of 150 meters per minute (492 ft./min.), hydraulic-power elevators began appearing in 1878, and became widely used in Europe and the United States.
At the Mannheim Exposition of 1880, as the industrialized world was adopting electrical power, the German company Siemens exhibited an electric power elevator. Worm gears were applied to reduce the rotation speed of a direct-current motor, and pinions and vertical racks were used to control speed by altering series resistance in the armature.
The first person to use a DC motor for an elevator is believed to be Wegster in 1884 in the United States. A few years later, in 1889, Norton Otis, son of the pioneering Elisha, developed an electric elevator, the first direct-connected geared elevator in the world, and installed it in the Demarest Carriage Building on Fifth Avenue in New York. The elevator carried a load of 675 kilograms (1,488 lbs.) for passengers, 1,125 kilograms for freight (2,480 lbs.), and topped out at a speed of 30 meters per minute (98.4 ft./min.) along a vertical travel distance of 21 meters (68.9 ft.).
Oil-power hydraulic elevators were installed in the Eiffel Tower, the symbol of the Paris Exposition in 1889, forming a dramatic demonstration of the practicality of this type of elevator. A little over a decade later, in 1900, the alternating current induction motor was introduced, which further accelerated the move towards electric power. Then, in 1903, the traction type current elevator models appeared in the United States. With this method, the car is connected to a counterweight by a rope and a pulley using traction power. Since only a small electric motor is required to pull the car over a greatly increased vertical distance, it became feasible to lift cars up high-rise buildings with dozens of floors.
Soon thereafter, the adoption of the Ward-Leonard method became an epoch-making advance in the evolution of elevator technology. The Otis Elevator Company introduced it to the market as a multi-voltage system, while Westinghouse marketed it as a variable voltage system. With it, a precision DC system using an automatic car-leveling device improved the quality of the ride and landing at each floor.
In 1922, Westinghouse installed a gearless elevator in the Physical Education Building in Chicago, and in that same year also installed the then-fastest elevators with automatic landing device, in the Rockefeller Building in New York, which boasted a speed of 420 meters per minute (1,378 ft./min.). A few years later the Otis Elevator Company would install the 58 elevators in the Empire State Building in Manhattan designed to service the colossal structure’s 15,000 daily users.
In the 1930s, against a backdrop of some 75 years of elevator technology development, which served to drive the construction and practical application of skyscrapers soaring as high as 102 stories, Mitsubishi Electric Corp. entered the elevator business.
Over the next 75 years the company would build on this body of knowledge, introduce some of the biggest breakthroughs in the history of elevator technology, and open the way for today’s elevators which can reach speeds as fast as 1,000 meters per minute (3,281 ft./min.) and more. Today, Mitsubishi Electric Corp. has achieved a firm position as a leader in the industry, and has become a standard-bearer of elevator quality and innovation.