Why The Passenger Lift Is Considered One Of The Most Important Inventions Of All Time

The passenger lift has to be considered one of the most important inventions of all time. Why? Because without it, there wouldn’t be any high rise buildings!

The history of the lift makes for interesting reading. Join us as we venture onwards and upwards through the historical timeline of the important world of vertical transport.

Ancient elevators

The earliest record of a lift can be traced back to Roman architect Vitruvius, who reported Greek scientist and inventor Archimedes to have constructed the first one in 236 BC.

Based on pulleys and hoists, these lifts were made from hemp rope and were powered manually by animals or people, or sometimes water wheels. They were very popular and put to extensive use for many years to move water, building materials and other heavy items.

In Ancient Rome, lifts were used in the Colosseum to transport gladiators and their animal opponents from under the ground up to the arena. 24 winch-based, cage-style lifts were in operation, all operated manually by slaves.

A slightly (but not much) less rudimentary version of the Roman lift was used by King Louis XV in the 18th century. Known as the ‘flying chair’, although it looked more like a cabinet with a seat inside, it was installed at the King’s residence in Versailles where it was used to transport him to one of his mistresses’ apartments on an upper floor.

The Flying Chair used ropes, counterweights and pulleys, and so legend goes, was manually powered by men stationed in a chimney.

King Louis 15

King Louis XV used his  ‘flying chair’ elevator to reach his mistresses in the Palace of Versailles.

The lift revolution of the 19th century

During the 1800s, emerging technologies such as steam and hydraulics started to transform the design of the lift. Factories, warehouses and mines would utilise them to take the strain out of transporting goods and people.

In 1823, inventor and surveyor Thomas Hornor built the first steam-powered commercial elevator which he named the ‘Ascending Room’. He opened his London Colosseum, designed by British architect Decimus Burton, to the public in January 1829, complete with the pioneering new passenger lift to take tourists up to witness panoramic views of the London skyline.

London Colosseum

Decimus Burton’s London Colosseum, opened in 1829, featured the ‘Ascending Room’ elevator by Thomas Horner.

These early lifts however were fraught with problems. The cables were prone to snapping, and people were nervous of travelling in them. In 1835, in response to these problems, the ‘Teagle’ was invented by English architects Stutt and Frost. Designed with a belt and counterweight, this new model offered greater safety.

Later, in 1852, American industrialist and inventor Elisha Otis stepped in and developed a safety brake to prevent the lift cabin from plummeting should one of the cables snap. It was thanks to this safety mechanism that public confidence in the passenger lift began to grow. It also earned Otis a reputation as the inventor of the modern lift.

In 1846, Sir William Armstrong introduced the hydraulic crane, which led to hydraulics replacing steam in lifting equipment. It was from this point that hydraulic passenger lifts started to take over from steam-powered models. It was quite a set-up though, with a need for extensive holes to be excavated under the lift shafts. The higher the elevation, the deeper the holes would have to be. Power suppliers created networks of hydraulic piping to help, but the speed and the height of the elevator remained limited, with the downward journey somewhat jerky. All of these issues led to the invention of direct-action hydraulic lifts. But something a lot better was on its way.

Towards the end of the 19th century, electric lifts were introduced. These had two advantages over their hydraulic predecessors; speed being one of them, and limitless height being the other.

The first electric lift was constructed by German inventor Wener Von Siemens in 1880 and, by 1887, an electric lift with automatic doors that would close off the lift shaft was patented, further enhancing passenger safety.


Elisha Otis

Elisha Otis developed a safety brake to prevent lift cabins from plummeting should one of the cables snap.

20th century lifts

In 1902, Otis came up with another pioneering innovation: the gearless traction electric elevator. Thanks to this electrical-come-mechanical invention, several new high-rise buildings were constructed in New York, with the lift forming an intrinsic part of the design.

It has to be said that city skylines the world over would not be the same had it not been for the invention of the lift!

Interesting lift facts

Here are some interesting facts around the world’s lift industry:

  • Height – again recorded by Guinness World Records, the world’s tallest lift, towering some 1,898 feet and 1 inch, can be found in Shanghai. It is installed in the 2,073 feet high Shanghai Tower, travelling 124 of its 126 storeys.
Shanghai Tower

The world’s tallest lift, towering some 1,898 feet and 1 inch, can be found in the 2,073 feet high Shanghai Tower.

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