Elisha Graves Otis was born August 3, 1811 in Halifax, Vermont.
By the age of 20, Otis had moved to Troy, New York where he worked as a wagon driver.
In 1834, the 23 year old married Susan A. Houghton.
After suffering from a terrible case of pneumonia, Otis moved his wife and three year old son to the Vermont Hills on the Green River where he designed and built his own flour mill.
His mill was not making enough money, so Otis unsuccessfully tried converting it into a sawmill.
To make ends meet for his family (now with a second son), Otis began building wagons and carriages.
Tragedy struck however, when Otis’ wife suddenly died leaving him with and 8 year old son and an infant baby son to care for alone.
He married Elizabeth (her maiden name is not known) and moved to Albany, New York where he found work as a doll maker for Otis Tingely.
It was hard work to make his quota of twelve dolls per day, so Elisha Otis invented (and patented) a mechanical doll turner. This could produce dolls four times faster than by hand, allowing him to produce about fifty per day.
His boss Otis Tingely rewarded Elisha with a $500 bonus.
He used this money to leave Tingely and open his own business.
Now focusing on inventions, Elisha Otis began designing a bread baking oven as well as a safety brake that could stop trains instantly.
When Albany, New York diverted the stream he was utilizing as his power supply for his leased building, he moved his family to Bergen City, New Jersey.
Here he found work as a mechanic before hearing of an abandoned sawmill in Yonkers, New York that was to be converted into a bedstead factory.
He moved at once to Yonkers and became manager of the factory conversion.
By now Elisha was 40 years old and found it too difficult to manually move all the old debris to the upper levels of the factory.
He had heard of hoisting platforms, but they often broke and he didn’t want to risk getting hurt.
So, along with his two son, Elisha designed his own “safety elevator.”
He tested this free-fall prevention mechanism in 1852 which used a special mechanism to lock the elevator car in place should the hoisting ropes fail.
It was successfully used at the factory, but Elisha thought so little of it that he neither patented it nor requested a bonus from his boss for designing it.
Then when the bedstead factory began to decline in business, Elisha was forced to move on once more.
This time he fell back on his free-fall prevention mechanism and started a company in Yonkers he initially called Union Elevator Works.
Union Elevator Works
Elisha Otis developed the safety elevator, which prevented the fall of the cab if the cable broke.
He showed off his new elevator at the 1854 New York World’s Fair exposition in the Crystal Palace with a death-defying demonstration.
With a large crowd looking on, Elisha Otis stood on a platform and ordered the only rope holding the platform cut. The rope was severed by an axeman and the platform fell only a few inches before coming to a halt.
After the World’s Fair, Elisha received continuous orders and changed the name of his company to the Otis Elevator Company.
He also developed different types of motors, like a three-way steam valve engine, which could transition the elevator between up to down and stop it rapidly.
World’s First Passenger Elevator
Eder V. Haughwout’s five-story building at 488 Broadway in New York City was under construction in early 1857 when it became a trailblazing project.
The building was no taller than other buildings of the time, however it was being built in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan at the corner of Broome Street and Broadway.
Eder Haughwout hired designer John P. Gaynor to have the building highlight his fashionable emporium showroom of imported glass, silverware, hand-painted china, and fine chandeliers.
A few years earlier, Haughwout had seen Elisha Otis’ elevator demonstration and asked Gaynor to work with Otis to install the world’s first passenger elevator as a gimmick to attract wealthy clients to the new novelty and then remain to purchase expensive merchandise from his showroom.
Elisha Otis designed a hydraulic lift elevator powered by a steam-engine installed in the basement (as this was years before electricity) at a cost of $300. The elevator ended up having a speed of .67 feet per second.
Eder Haughwout opened his new building with the world’s first elevator “for inspection” on the evening of March 23, 1857.
In his spare time, Elisha Otis also designed and experimented with his old designs of bread-baking ovens and train brakes, and patented a steam plow in 1857, a rotary oven in 1858, and, with his son Charles, the oscillating steam engine in 1860.
On January 15, 1861, Elisha Otis was awarded a patent on his elevator design.
Then Elisha contracted diphtheria and died April 8, 1861 at the age of 49.
Today the Otis Elevator Company, now a subsidiary of United Technologies Corporation, is the world’s largest manufacturer of vertical transport systems.
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