The Publicity Stunt That Convinced People Elevators Were Safe

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Unless you’re claustrophobic, stepping into an elevator is no big deal; many of us do it several times a day. But prior to 1854, people weren’t exactly lining up to use them, no matter how convenient they were—cables snapped frequently enough that the public viewed them as death traps.

Then, along came mechanic Elisha Otis and his miracle invention, the safety elevator. Thanks to his clever engineering, the cable could snap and the elevator would still hold. Make: has a great demo of how it worked:

However, elevators carried such a stigma that no one was willing to give Otis’s safety elevator a chance. Sales were practically nonexistent. To show the public that his invention worked, Otis orchestrated a stunt that would change the way we build, work, and live.

In 1854, he constructed a 50-foot elevator at the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in New York, getting P.T. Barnum himself to hype up the crowd. Otis made a show of riding the elevator all the way to the top, then severing the cable that tethered the elevator car to the frame. Shocked onlookers prepared for the inventor to plummet to a particularly ugly death—but when the rope snapped, the elevator dropped only a few inches. “All safe,” he assured the crowd.

Just to get his point across, Otis repeated his demonstration over and over for months, proving to thousands of onlookers that a safe elevator had finally arrived. Today, there are approximately 2.5 million Otis elevators in operation [PDF].

So, the next time you step into an elevator, imagine the cable being cleaved in two—and then breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that if that happened you would be fine.