The elevator’s origins can be traced back to a piece of theater. Elisha Graves Otis, a mechanic, performed in the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in New York City from May to October 1854 to illustrate the usefulness of a safety device he had devised. Otis established the E. G. Otis Elevator Company in Yonkers, New York, on September 20 of the previous year. However, after only receiving one order in his first seven months of operation, he gladly accepted an invitation to show off his apparatus to the general public. He placed a platform on guide rails in the Crystal Palace on Forty-Second Street (an copy of the Crystal Palace built for the London World’s Fair in 1851), on which he had himself hoisted into the air before the onlookers. He severed the platform’s suspension cable as it reached its maximum height, much to their surprise.
The lift spare parts, however, instead of dropping fifty feet to the ground, came to a halt after only a few inches of movement. “All right, gentlemen,” Otis reassured the stunned fairgoers, before explaining his newly devised safety catch: a flat-leaf cart spring attached to the platform’s roof remained flexed as long as the elevator’s hoisting rope was taut, but flattened out as soon as the rope was severed, engaging notches cut into the guide rails and securing the platform in place. This experiment increased public knowledge of the concept and resulted in a large number of freight elevator orders in the following years. On March 23, 1857, the first passenger elevator was installed in the retail facility of Haughwout and Company, a New York porcelain and glass dealer.
Otis’s 1854 performance is regarded as the first elevator scene in history. This event serves as a demarcation line in every encyclopedia article and handbook on the history of technology, as well as in individual monographs and collections of essays on the subject, separating the predecessors from the canonical figures, the mere curiosities from the fully developed, production-ready apparatuses. According to a publication on the company’s history, “Otis had marked the beginning of the elevator industry” by pulling off this act in front of a gasping crowd. At first glance, the consensus that Elisha Otis’ experiment represents a historical caesura, “one of the authentic great moments in architectural history,” appears to be at odds with the relatively modest scale of the innovation that he presented in 1854 and finally patented three months before his death in January 1861. Because the main principle of the hoisting mechanism was not invented by the New York mechanic. His single contribution to the existing equipment was a safety device, the reliability of which he demonstrated by using himself as a test subject.
A review of architectural history literature indicates how old the practice of vertical transportation of goods and people is. Hoisting devices first appeared in the writings of Archimedes and Vitruvius in classical antiquity. Passenger elevators appeared in isolated instances between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries, and are frequently cited in technological histories. For example, Jena mathematician Erhard Weigel had a mansion built in 1670 in which he installed a system of pulleys to transport him from one of the structure’s seven stories to the next. Maria Theresa, the sick Austrian empress, would be lowered into the Crypt of the Capuchins by elevator in her later years to pray at her parents’ graves. In 1804, a freight and passenger elevator was built for a six-story cotton mill in Derbyshire, and in 1830, the English diplomat Charles Greville described an apparatus in the palace of the Sardinian royal couple in Genoa in his memoirs: “For the comfort of their bodies he has a machine made like a car, which is drawn up by a chain from the bottom to the top of the house; it holds about six people, who can be elevated at pleasure to any storey, and at each
Thus, despite the plethora of data, a heterogeneity that only grew in the decades preceding Otis’s experiment, one would wonder why the elevator’s history should be based on a single, canonical incidence. From the 1830s forward, there were numerous well-documented elevator installations in Europe and the United States, both planned and constructed. According to the seventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, freight elevators were constructed in various British textile companies around 1830. Furthermore, in European mines, the transition from hemp ropes and chains to the much greater load-bearing capacity of the iron-wire cable, invented in 1834, resulted in the rise of so-called rack-transport, which can be thought of as an underground freight elevator. Ore and coal were no longer hauled to the surface in barrels swinging on a rope, but rather in multistory compartments with guide rails that could handle a vast number of containers. (As we will see, this evolution had little effect on the miners’ vertical transportation at first.)
During the same time period, however, there was an increase in the number of references to passenger elevators. The Bunker Hill Monument, a 221-foot granite obelisk completed in 1842 near Boston, has a steam-powered elevator that can transport six persons to an observation deck. The architect James Bogardus designed a 325-foot tower with a steam-powered elevator for the 1853 opening of the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations (the same fair where Elisha Otis would display his invention the following year). Peter Cooper, a New York steel maker, had a nine-story elevator shaft erected to his offices the same year, though the mechanism was not installed for another eleven years. Finally, in June 1853, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine reported on the impending “installation of a steam elevator” into private mansions in New York, which would allow “an lazy, or weary, or aristocratic person” to be transported to the top floors.
The dispersed and chaotic beginnings of the elevator’s history cannot be easily consolidated into a single fundamental narrative, as all of these projects and installations demonstrate. “All safe, gentlemen, all safe,” a single voice in a tremendous chorus of mid-nineteenth-century mechanics, is less the “incunabular maxim of the modern passenger elevator” than a single voice in a mighty chorus of mid-nineteenth-century mechanics. So, how did his 1854 experiment earn such a renown? What was so revolutionary about Elisha Otis’s invention if, according to a recently published official company history, his elevator in the New York Crystal Palace was based on “previously existing models”: “a platform set between vertical guide rails and raised and lowered on a rope wound around an overhead drum, the drum turned by belting that looped across the factory floor to the central, continuously turning steam engine.”
As a result, by 1854, both the propelling power and the mechanism were well-known aspects of the instrument. Otis’ innovation of the automated safety catch was the essential distinction, the detail that changed scattered instances of the usage of hoisting machines primarily for freight into the passenger elevator—almost an all-but-mandatory installation in every multistory building. “Although humanity had been building hoists for at least two thousand years before that, their hoists had the significant flaw of falling to the bottom should the lifting cable break,” as one elevator historian put it. Mr. Otis, on the other hand, created something that no one had ever seen before. To save the car from falling, he developed a hoist with an automatic safety system.”
Given the widespread belief that the true history of this mode of transportation begins with Otis’s emergency brake, it’s worth considering contemporary reactions to the occurrence. In retrospect, the Crystal Palace elevator experiment looks to have been the acclaimed centerpiece of the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations. Elisha Otis’s son Charles Otis wrote in a 1911 biographical study commemorating the hundredth anniversary of his father’s birth that the demonstration was “one of the most intriguing and appealing in the Fair,” a statement that held true for decades. Even the most recent book on the Otis Company’s history claims that by the end of the fair, the demonstration had “far since overtaken the larger performance it was a part of.” The people, it appears, was already aware of the scene’s historical significance.
However, if one searches New York newspapers and magazines between May and October 1854 for proof of the event, a different image emerges. While the New York Times covered the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations almost daily after its ceremonial reopening on May 1 (it had been closed during the winter of 1853–1854), including enthusiastic full-page articles about main attractions like the hot air balloon ascent from the fairgrounds on June 9, not a single line was devoted to the epoch-making event in the Crystal Palace. To find any sign of the experiment, one must sift through the archives methodically. Scientific American included various curiosities found in the fair’s “machine arcade” in a sidebar headed “Crystal Palace Notes” in its June 10, 1854 issue. A “new and outstanding platform elevator, by Mr. Otis, of Yonkers, N.Y….,” is mentioned among the praises for a cigar rolling machine and a whaling harpoon.
It is powered by steam and works similarly to the elevators seen in cotton mills. It includes a simple platform that slides up and down on guides… It’s self-contained, safe, and practical.” The safety gadget or its stunning performance were not mentioned. Only two minor mentions of the 1854 event appeared in major American daily newspapers and periodicals. A brief item published in the New York Daily Tribune on May 30, 1854, in addition to the Scientific American piece, mentions the inventor’s boldness, “who, as he rides up and down the platform occasionally breaks the rope by which it is sustained.” There are no further contemporary traces to be identified (just as there were no obituaries of Elisha Otis in 1861). As a result, it’s no exaggeration to claim that the Crystal Palace display, that “genuine major moment in architectural history,” went virtually completely overlooked by the general public.
If you look for a contemporaneous viewpoint on the elevator’s emergence in the United States between 1850 and 1880, you’re more likely to find a distinct underlying narrative. Every narrative of the elevator’s history until the early twentieth century credits another technician with a similar-sounding name, Otis Tufts, with its development, despite the fact that he is largely forgotten today. Tufts patented a device known as a “Vertical Railway” or “Vertical Screw Elevator” in 1859. It was the first to feature a fully enclosed cab, propelled by a twenty-inch-wide steam-driven iron screw that ran through the middle. In the same year, the only two instances of this slow, expensive, but exceedingly safe elevator were erected in New York City’s Fifth Avenue Hotel and Philadelphia’s Continental Hotel. While the owners of the Haughwout store had Elisha Otis’ first passenger elevator removed three years after it was installed because the public refused to accept it, the two elevators built by Tufts remained in service until the 1870s, transforming the hotels into overcrowded tourist attractions for a time.
It’s interesting to note how early writings on the elevator’s history assigned the pioneering role to the Boston inventor, who was lauded as “one of the most successful inventors of the last thirty years” after his death in November 1869. The American Architect and Building News began its lengthy piece “Notes on Elevators” in 1880 by noting how recently these “now necessary comforts” had been invented. “Although steam freight hoists had been around for forty years, it has only been around twenty since the late Otis Tufts built the first passenger elevator, or’vertical railway,’ as it was known… For a while, this cumbersome and expensive gear maintained the field to itself.” Two years later, Sloane Kennedy claimed to be the first historian of the new mode of transportation in a Harper’s Monthly article:
“The narrative of the invention of the passenger elevator has never before been recorded, and the current paper is thus a new chapter in the history of inventions.” “It is to the great mind and energy of the Boston inventor (now deceased) that the credit for designing and constructing the world’s first passenger elevator operated by steam power is owed,” he said. Only once in Kennedy’s essay does the name Elisha Otis appear, in a statement describing “other early innovators and patentees of components of elevator apparatus.” His emergency brake, which marked a turning point in elevator history, was still deemed a non-essential feature in 1882. Otis Tufts was regarded as the definitive historical person, a view that persisted for decades. “The first elevators for use as passenger lifts, of which I have any knowledge, were the screw-elevators built by Otis Tufft [sic], of Boston, in 1859,” one of the largest elevator manufacturers in Chicago replied in 1903 when asked about the early history of his product.
We need to retrace our steps back to the time where a man like Otis Tufts faded into the background and the now-accepted basic narrative took hold. When and why did an experiment that had been regarded as a minor anecdote at most for the previous fifty years become into a watershed moment? How is it that for decades, all research on the elevator’s history has focused on an event for which there is little proof due to a lack of contemporary interest? (At fact, it was often misdated: Jeannot Simmen and Uwe Drepper claimed that Otis’s experiment took place “in the New York Crystal Palace in 1853,” while Jean Gavois said that “Otis showed his safety elevator… in 1853.”) Without a doubt, the ex post facto valuation of this primeval landscape is driven by the financial interests of the world’s largest elevator manufacturer. From the 1870s forward, Elisha Otis’s two entrepreneurial sons created Otis Brothers and Company, which became the main elevator manufacturer. The Otis Elevator Company absorbed its fourteen major American competitors when it was founded in 1898. The corporation wanted to achieve historiographic hegemony over the equipment in addition to its monopoly on elevator production. It’s no coincidence that Elisha’s son Charles wrote the historical record that initially places the experiment in the Crystal Palace at the center of the elevator’s history. In 1911, he stated his plan to replace the “well-intentioned but slightly erroneous notes” commemorating the worldwide enterprise’s founder’s hundredth anniversary with a genuine tale. His story contained a brief description of the experiment that drew such little attention in 1854, proclaiming it to be the birth of the passenger elevator. Otis Tufts, on the other hand, pretended to be a lowly epigone who had taken Elisha Otis’ promising idea and conned the hotel owners of New York and Philadelphia into buying his shoddily manufactured machines (Charles Otis mentioned a serious accident in the Continental Hotel, an incident for which no other evidence exists).
The impact of this book on elevator historiography may be seen in the fact that after 1911, almost every discussion of the elevator’s origins began with a repetition of the narrative of the Crystal Palace occurrence. At the same time, Otis Tufts, whose contribution to elevator construction was far from limited to the exotic “Vertical Screw Elevator,” was demoted to a minor early player. The most important producer of the conveyance was now regarded as its inventor as well, and one can see how this narrative was solidified over the course of the twentieth century—especially, of course, by the Otis Company itself, whose publications make up a significant portion of the historical literature. On the 125th anniversary of the E. G. Otis Elevator Company’s establishment, the company even created a facsimile newspaper with fictitious history pieces, thereby fabricating a contemporary interest in Otis’s experiment that did not exist in reality. One may read about a “young inventor” displaying his safety elevator “in a daring presentation before thousands of onlookers” under the header “New York, 1854” and in a layout reminiscent of the New York Times. “Everyone in the hall halted to see what would happen next as the platform went up, without question,” one reporter observed. This “anniversary edition” also included a remarkable iconographic enrichment of the event: next to the article was an artwork that was frequently copied in the years that followed. It was supposed to give you a sense of enthusiasm at the Crystal Palace.
This illustration was based on a sketch created during the demonstration by an artist for the New York Recorder, according to the Otis Company’s historian. However, the event was depicted in a far more modest manner in all previous material regarding the experiment (even that published by the Otis Company itself). We have reason to believe that the most renowned and now “official” image of the experiment was created in 1978. The throngs of stunned bystanders, as well as the assistant who has just cut the suspension cable, are also modern inventions.
It’s understandable that the largest manufacturer of a technical device would want to take credit for its invention retrospectively. However, the stage-managed event in the Crystal Palace was so regularly and unanimously depicted as the elevator’s primal scene during the last hundred years that there had to be more at work in this consensus than merely the company’s public relations campaign. It was more about figuring out how to build a basic narrative in the history of technology. If this event stands out among the dozens of probable possibilities between 1840 and 1860 as the elevator’s inception, and if it still has the power to suppress competing dates after half a century of neglect, one has to question what has kept it going. One answer could be found in the presentation of Otis’ idea. The theatricality of the demonstration elevates this contribution to the elevator’s development above the crowd of equally important but less dramatic turning points, such as the first installation of guide rails in a factory or the first construction of a completely enclosed cab (however unimpressed contemporary witnesses may have been).
A public demonstration’s condensed style satisfies the desire for a clear, unambiguous beginning, which is fundamental to technology history. The dramaturgy of the experiment in the Crystal Palace also adds to this result: Otis focused his display of the innovation on a radical moment—the ostensibly deadly severance of the cable—and therefore accommodated historians’ desire to locate the beginning in a single, visible moment. The frequently circulated artwork of the experiment, drawn several years after the occurrence, must be taken into consideration. It tries to capture the historical event as accurately as possible: the wire has been severed, the witnesses are frozen, yet the platform does not fall. So, why has the rally at the New York industrial exhibition become the primeval scene? Not because it is easily recognized as the start, but because it is pleasing to the eye—it makes the start visible. The hero’s rise into the air in the Crystal Palace moves toward a literal peripeteia, a tragic reversal—until the safety catch interrupts his fall. Otis provides an appropriate narrative for the birth of the elevator, in fact, a classically Aristotelian narrative: the hero’s rise into the air in the Crystal Palace moves toward a literal peripeteia, a tragic reversal—until the safety catch interrupts
In any case, the event’s epochal significance exemplifies the discursive procedures through which the “origin of a technical fact” emerges, in the words of scientific historian Ludwik Fleck. Fleck explains how years of communal and anonymous work on serological studies were retroactively assigned to a single investigator in his study of syphilis research around 1900. To guarantee a clear historical narrative, a sequence of innumerable laboratory corrections and changes that eventually led to the test’s reliability was turned into a datable act, an individual innovation (the “Wassermann response” of 1906). All histories of the elevator that begin in the Crystal Palace in 1854 preserve the “straight path to knowledge,” which Fleck’s discourse analysis exposes as a fiction; out of the “thinking collective” of mechanics in the middle of the nineteenth century, a single name and a single event are distilled. However, the closer one looks at this ostensibly clear distillate, the more cloudy it gets.
The architecture of residential and commercial structures altered dramatically in the second half of the nineteenth century, with the start of the restructuring process known as the era of urbanization. A building has previously been thought of as a self-contained, uncomplicated entity with no more than one or two levels above the bottom floor. The “home” inspired, for example, the emotional image of the “integral dwelling” that cultural historian Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl attempted to breathe life into one more time in his well-known work Die Naturgeschichte des Volkes (Natural History of the German People) of 1854. But, by the end of the century, what looked to be an evocative of a lifestyle that was already dissolving—in light of the first “sad, gloomy apartment towers of our great cities”—had lost any meaning. The house intended for a single family all but vanished in the burgeoning cities, to be replaced by a new type of building. Riehl’s defense of an economic and social community under one roof became irrelevant to the extent that the house intended for a single family all but vanished in the burgeoning cities, to be replaced by a new type of building.
Between 1860 and 1900, the new five- and six-story tenement homes that became a distinguishing architectural feature of European cities began to expand and diversify the image of the house in numerous ways. For one thing, their vertical expansion inevitably resulted in the particular building being divided into a plethora of apartments housing a wide range of people, a practice that effectively dismantled the “integral house” paradigm. For another, the addition pointed in a less obvious direction: the simultaneous arrival of advances such as central heating, sewerage, intercoms, elevators, and, later, electricity ensured that the interior of the building was crisscrossed by a complex of pipes, cables, and shafts from the 1870s onwards. There arose an invisible network beneath the visible surface that organized the flow of energy, data, and people. In the end, this process of mechanization and electrification made it necessary for the previously independent unit of the house to become networked with its surroundings, because the functionality of its technical installations could only be ensured by connecting to external power sources and centrally regulated reservoirs and generators. The lines between individual buildings in a residential neighborhood became increasingly blurry.
The elevator played a critical part in the building’s reorganization. Even the designers of the first multi-story skyscrapers in New York and Chicago underlined that this mode of transportation was a necessary condition for subsequent rises in building height over a certain number of stories. The elevator was crucial in the building’s extension and diversity, and not just because it was what made structures with more than five or six floors conceivable in the first place. It constructed a new, hermetically sealed conduit in the form of a taxi closed to view from the outside and travelling through the middle of the structure. Modern residential and office buildings have a huge number of previously unknown semi-public spaces, such as stairwells and corridors, which is one of their most distinguishing features. Strangers may now be encountered nearly anywhere in the usually contained family realm of the residential structure, and such contacts became even more focused in the elevator.
The shrinking of once amply proportioned social spaces of urban middle-class dwellings “to a little corner,” according to Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl, signaled the beginning of the demise of the “integral house.” Such niches were no longer available in the multistory residential and business buildings that were common by the end of the nineteenth century. The floor plan was divided into private residential or commercial parcels on one hand, and spaces devoted solely to traffic circulation on the other—a fragmentation vehemently criticized by Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space a century after Riehl: “In Paris, there are no houses, and the inhabitants of the big city live in superimposed boxes.” And it is just this fact that begs the following question, which we will return to in the coming chapters: To what extent did the appearance of the new architectural element “elevator” (a shaft that domesticates and obscures verticality in equal measure, a conveyance that allows one to reach the upper levels of a building without exerting any effort, a cab that irritates its occupants with its cramped interior but is invisible from the outside) influence the organization and perception of multistory buildings or, especially in European cities, massively reshaped buildings) influence the organization and perception of multistory buildings
The elevator, which first appeared in New York in the 1850s, spread across Europe and the United States at varying rates. By the early 1860s, it was a standard feature of large East Coast hotels, and by 1870, it had been installed in New York’s Equitable Life Building (its first use in a multistory office building), but until the late 1860s, this mode of transportation was almost unknown in Europe, with the exception of a purely hand-operated device for moving freight between floors in a factory. Only after the development of the extremely safe hydraulic elevator, which was first displayed at the 1867 Paris World’s Fair (with its cab attached to a piston located below ground level, which pushed the elevator upwards when filled with water under pressure), did the apparatus gain widespread use in France and Germany. In the 1870s, for example, the hydraulic technique’s adoption led to the installation of passenger elevators in Berlin hotels and commercial buildings. However, the first papers on elevators in engineering and construction magazines indicated how uncommon the equipment was at the time. In Berlin, for example, an 1874 article titled “Hydraulic Elevators for Passengers and Light Freight” detailed every single structure outfitted with the new mode of transportation.
“The number of passenger elevators installed in Berlin is minimal,” according to an 1887 monograph. The bulk is in hotels, followed by a lesser number in office buildings and finally a very small number in strictly residential buildings.” There were few multi-story residential or business buildings in significant American cities at the time that didn’t include an elevator. In Germany, on the other hand, vertical people transportation remained a rarity until the 1890s, when elevators powered by hydraulics, either directly or indirectly, were replaced by systems powered by electricity.
There was also a disparity in the location of elevators within buildings, in addition to the speed with which they multiplied. The elevator quickly became the heart of the skyscraper in New York, Boston, and Chicago. Every new multistory structure since the 1870s has been built around an elevator shaft. Open stairwells with elevators, which are still common in apartment buildings in Paris and Vienna today, had all but vanished in the United States by the end of the nineteenth century. As a result, in great American cities, the verticality of buildings was set considerably earlier by the elevator conduit. When Rem Koolhaas narrates the demolition of the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1929 and the start of work on the Empire State Building on the same site in his book Delirious New York, he paints a particularly vivid picture of the elevator shaft’s vital position. At a time when there were very few German structures with a floor plan clearly determined by the elevator, the elevator shafts forming the core of a building were totally conventional in the origin of this mode of transportation. “As part of the construction, the Waldorf will be demolished. Useful fragments remain, such as the elevator cores that now stretch into the Empire State’s as-yet-immaterial floors.” According to Koolhaas, the supervising architect even acknowledged the elevators in his autobiography:
“From the old building, we saved four passenger elevators and put them in temporary positions in the new framework.”
In the literature on the history of high-height structures, the inextricable link between the development of the elevator and the vertical extension of the building, notably in the United States, is widely documented. “The perfection of elevator work is the one fundamental condition for high buildings,” a New York architectural historian wrote in 1891, and Francisco Mujica writes in his first monograph on the origins of the skyscraper, “The entire history of skyscrapers contains an homage to the inventors of the elevator.” This homage would have to point out that it would have been completely possible to erect hotels and commercial buildings with more than the current six-story maximum in the 1850s and 1860s, but hotel guests or renters could not be expected to ascend an even greater number of stairs. “Limited as to the ground, business sought in the air,” wrote the author of an 1897 article about the growing paucity of space in Manhattan’s business districts. It had to be done; the question was how. It was pointless to build more stories atop the sixth because no one would climb up to them. The situation became mechanical, and the financier and architect found themselves in the same position as the mason.” The difficulty was solved by using an automatic mode of transportation: “The passenger elevator was the solution… It was supposed to be a revolutionary agent in modern construction, like the steam engine is in transportation.”
Around 1875, the elevator allowed buildings in New York to reach a height of around eleven stories. During those years, a series of insurance and newspaper buildings were built and nicknamed “elevator buildings,” enshrining their necessity in their own name. Their vertical limit, however, was eleven or twelve storeys, because any extra levels would require the bottom floors’ walls to be so enormously extended and stabilized that any increase in room or rent would be minimal. “There came a point,” the same piece on Manhattan’s commercial buildings said, “when going higher using the solid masonry method meant losing more money at the bottom than was gained at the top.” The advent of steel frame construction, which dramatically increased the potential number of floors by moving the load-bearing function of masonry walls to a steel skeleton, famously solved this challenge at the beginning of the 1880s, in the aftermath of the great Chicago fire. For a 10 to fifteen-year period, the elevator machinery—the previously required hydraulic apparatus—appeared to be the limiting element. Steel frame structure would allow for the construction of a fifty-story building, but the hydraulic technology limited the height to eighteen to twenty stories.
“Because of the slowness of elevators and the considerable area consumed by them and their heavy apparatus, building higher than that would be completely uneconomic.” In the end, it was electrically powered elevators, with their smaller footprints and faster speeds (from 5 feet per second for hydraulic elevators to 9.8 to 16 feet per second within a decade), that paved the way for nearly limitless increases in building height, a leap exemplified by the fact that the highest building in the world in the 1890s was the twenty-story Masonic Temple in Chicago, but the Woolworth Building, completed in 1913, stood a whopping 102 stories tall. There have been numerous discussions in the twentieth-century literature on the history of architecture concerning which element—the elevator or steel frame construction—was important for the rapid development of the vertical extension. Even if one does not agree with the earliest skyscraper historian, who gives the elevator sole credit for this development (“It is the elevator that is the initial cause of the skyscraper.”) The steel skeleton is a result of the elevator”), there is no doubt about the importance of this mode of transportation. No one has put it better than a German commentator on the Woolworth Structure’s opening: “It must be conceded that the possibility of a fifty-five-story building is based entirely on the flawless operation of passenger elevators.” (It would take 34 minutes to climb to the top floor on steps with 4.7-inch risers!)”
This book is not intended to be either a study of technical and architectural history or a literary analysis of the “motif of the elevator” as extracted from fictional writings. Rather, it will attempt to grapple with what one might call the “imaginative organization” of the building within a specific time period using a diverse corpus of texts that includes novels and plays as well as legal regulations, articles from professional construction engineering journals, medical treatises, and handbooks of public hygiene. These are some of my inquiries: How did the element “elevator” affect the collective image of multistory residential and commercial structures in the decades before and after 1900? What impact did the technical equipment have on the conceivability and expressibility of what goes on inside the structures, in terms of space and people distribution?
This project could be described as an “archeology” of statements concerning the building in relation to the elevator, in the words of Michel Foucault. This work aims to illustrate the many ways the elevator disrupts familiar standards for the organization and perception of buildings, and how its appearance stamps the principles of building codes, as well as the concerns of the hygiene movement and the topography of the urban novel, in discrete cross-sections through the strata of legal, scientific, and artistic utterances, primarily between 1870 and 1930. Because this book is concerned with both the history of architectural artifacts and the processes of historical imagination, it is critical that the textual material includes both fictional and non-fictional works. Building rules and literary text spatial conceptions both bear the imprint of an epoch’s topographic imagination’s structures and constraints.
I’m interested in the preconditions for making judgments or fantasies about a structure, and one of the driving forces behind this work is the notion that the elevator serves as such a precondition, that it might be understood as a “technical apriority” for multistory building utterances. This assumption, however, has ramifications for how historical information is treated and even how historiography is understood. Any reconstruction of “historical truth,” any recounting of “what actually happened,” becomes increasingly problematic the more we focus on the preconditions for what is expressible. Instead of attempting to duplicate the past to the greatest extent possible, we must attempt to extract those aspects of an epoch that it could not tell about or reflect upon itself—since they were far too self-evident for contemporaries, constituting the unshakeable foundation of their own words and deeds.
As a result, the following analyses will not necessarily be concerned with uncovering the intentional core of scientific or literary texts, but rather with what one might call their “unconscious” (to use a pejorative term), those unspoken parameters of perception and imagination that can emerge in the most unexpected places—for example, in the introduction to a monograph or in a dependent clause in a building description. In this perspective, it’s critical to remember the conceptual category of the multistory building before the invention of the elevator, a time when no one could have imagined a vertical shaft going straight down the middle of a structure. This study is situated precisely in the juncture of a building’s ancient and new organizational structures, a juncture that first appeared around 1900.
The way technical innovations are established continues to be portrayed as a chronicle of triumphant progress, an unbroken series of adjustments and improvements: an apparatus that is at first imperfect and exotic becomes progressively improved, right up to the present day, according to how chapters in current histories of technology are organized or how informational material is presented in historical museums. Georges Canguilhem, a half-century ago, addressed such a solely teleological perspective by focusing on a completely another form of knowledge. Although he was speaking to science historians, his statements are as applicable to the history of technology:
The history of science is not a look back at progress or a depiction of obsolete stages that led to today’s truth. Its goal is to investigate and illuminate the extent to which concepts, attitudes, or methods that appear outmoded today represented progress in their own time, and how, as a result, the outmoded past remains the past of a scientific activity that must still be called scientific.
This entails repeatedly highlighting those historic turning points when what is now obsolete or taken for granted first appeared and began to unleash its disruptive power in our study of the elevator. This is why, with the exception of the concluding chapters, the focus of this book will be on the early history of the new conveyance, that is, before 1920 or 1930. The recalibration of the building’s system was visible in the early years. “He has to see objects not as they appear to the daily user, but as the inventor saw them when they first took shape,” Sigfried Giedion once said about the chronicler of “anonymous history” in Mechanization Takes Command, which is especially relevant for someone writing about an object that is so omnipresent and unspectacular today (at best, only capable of causing irritation by its spatial constriction): He requires the fresh eyes of his contemporaries, who saw them as marvellous or terrifying.” The following pages will seek to reintroduce the luster of novelty to the elevator, an object that has become boring and unobtrusive in the twenty-first century.