Posted but not written by Louis Sheehan
Elevators, though they might not seem like it at first, are one of those inventions—like the telephone, the car, indoor plumbing, or vaccines—that are nearly miraculous in the degree to which they have changed the way we live and yet tend to fade unnoticed into the background of modern life. Nick Paumgarten wrote about the centrality of the elevator to the modern metropolis in his 2008 story “Up and Then Down.” In it, he wrote:
Two things make tall buildings possible: the steel frame and the safety elevator. The elevator, underrated and overlooked, is to the city what paper is to reading and gunpowder is to war. Without the elevator, there would be no verticality, no density, and, without these, none of the urban advantages of energy efficiency, economic productivity, and cultural ferment. The population of the earth would ooze out over its surface, like an oil slick, and we would spend even more time stuck in traffic or on trains, traversing a vast carapace of concrete.
Designing elevators—to make them work, make them safe, and make them neither exasperating nor terrifying—is a delicate process. Paumgarten and Rick Pulling, an executive at the Otis Elevator Company, appear in this video (from the Amazon Originals show “The New Yorker Presents”) to discuss the history of elevators—from Elisha Otis’s 1854 World’s Fair demonstration of the first safety elevator, which wouldn’t plunge into free fall if the rope broke, to the story of a man who got caught in an elevator for forty-one hours in 1999. The history of elevators is a history not just of engineering but also of psychological trickery and human adaptation. It’s the job of elevators to obscure from passengers that they’re “hovering over an abyss,” as Paumgarten says. And the passengers, in turn, keep our cities moving by stepping into these small flying boxes every day, as though it were nothing at all.