Before Otis’ elevator buildings were effectively limited in height. Builders could build higher, but nobody was willing to climb too many stairs. Otis’ safety elevator reduced the cost of living and working at high levels in buildings.
While working to clean an old factory, Otis created a safety catch for hoist, a platform to move things between different floors. Hoisting platforms have always existed, but they were clumsy and dangerous since ropes would break. Otis’ innovation ensured if the rope were cut or broke that the elevator would not fall. It was this innovation that opened elevators to widespread adoption.
The elevator was not Otis’ focus, the factory was, but other factory owners came to him ordering the parts for their own safety elevators.
Otis, an employee and not an owner of the factory, failed. After that, he went into the elevator business. Business was slow at first because Otis refused to focus, working on not only elevators but bread ovens, train brakes, and other things.
P.T. Barnum Steps In
In the 1854 World’s Fair, P.T. Barnum was looking for something interesting and came across Otis’ safety elevator. Otis was high on a lift then, with Barnum telling the crowd that “those prone to fainting” to “take out your salts,” he cut the rope. Elisha, schooled in charisma by Barnum, bowed and crowed “All safe, ladies and gentlemen. All safe.” They did that every hour of the fair and, after, elevator orders doubled every year.
In 1854, Elisha developed a small steam engine for stores to hoist people; prior orders were for freight elevators in factories that had large steam engines. This small steam engine enabled the installation of elevators in hotels, apartment buildings, offices, and large stores, no large steam engine required. Further, Otis’ small engine could move in forward, reverse, or neutral, allowing the elevators to move up, down, or stand still.
Elisha sold a lot of elevators but also accrued a lot of debt. He died in 1861 with $8,200 in debt and an estate valued at $5,000. But his sons, more focused on innovation than inventing new gadgets, continued to develop the business. They bought the best engineers, electrified the elevators, hounded competitors when they’d suffer accidents, and created a curving elevator for Eiffel’s Tower in Paris. Elisha’s sons transformed Otis from a technology to a brand.