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What Does the Surprisingly Thrilling History of the Elevator Have to Do With the Self-Driving Car Race?

Riding an elevator is no big deal, right?

In the year 2021, using an elevator is among the more mundane experiences you can have as you go about your day. You might consider it about as interesting as waiting for a pot of water to boil or watching paint dry. 

But imagine for a moment traveling back in time 170 years to the 1850s, when this now commonplace device was seen as a major new technological breakthrough. The idea of a mechanical platform that could lift people straight up and down without any effort on their part, without the need to huff and puff up and down flights of stairs, was revolutionary. Back then, the elevator was still controlled by a manual operator, but that did not diminish the novelty.  

So who invented the elevator? How did it evolve over time to become safer, more trustworthy, and fully automated? And what can it tell us about how innovation and technological progress occur around the world? 

All of these topics and more are discussed in the latest edition of No Parking, co-hosted by Argo AI CEO Bryan Salesky and Ground Truth columnist Alex Roy.

This episode, Roy speaks with Andreas Bernard, author of the nonfiction book Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator and a professor of cultural studies at Leuphana University in Germany.

Bernard, who spent time studying original press clippings, articles, and materials from the 20th century to discern the origin story of the elevator, reveals some fascinating findings he uncovered. Among them: the realization that the iconic story of Elisha Otis demonstrating the first elevator brake at an industrial fair in New York City in 1854, before a crowd of shocked and delighted onlookers, is perhaps a bit of retrospective embellishment.

“The thing is that if you study the history of the elevator very carefully, let’s say in the 1850s, 60s, 70s, you have dozens of companies,” Bernard says on the podcast. “You have dozens of little micro inventions. For example, the one engineer who invented the cabin. Before that, there was only the platform. The other company invented the elevator door. The third one, Otis, invented the brake. So it was kind of a pastiche, there was no single inventor.”

For more incredible insights on elevator history, how it played out, and what it says about invention in the modern world, listen now to No Parking.

And while you’re at it, subscribe here to get the latest weekly episodes. 

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