Author Andreas Bernard joins Alex Roy to discuss his seminal work Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator and how the history of the elevator can serve as an analogy for the modern-day autonomous vehicle industry.
Hi, I’m Alex Roy and this is No Parking, a podcast about cutting through the hype around self-driving cars and artificial intelligence. In this episode, I want to talk about a very common headline and a question attached to it. And the headline is: who will win the self-driving car race? Which begs a question of what would that finish line look like? How would you win? And frequently, the question of safety comes up. In other words, when they become safe, someone’s gonna demonstrate that and then they’re just gonna win. They’re gonna win at all, it’s done. And that doesn’t really make a lot of sense. When you look at the history of world changing technologies that move people and the obvious ones would be aviation, shipping, railroads, or the traditional cars we still drive today. And then the one that I really want to talk about, which I think is the most informative one, is the history of elevators. When you look at that history, and there isn’t really a lot of great work done around elevator history, you will find that it, like all the other verticals, was not a winner take all and that safety was not invented in a day. In fact, safety has never been invented in a day in any transportation vertical. I was unable to find one that was a “winner take all” situation. So I tracked down the author of what I think is by far the most interesting and informative book about elevator history. The book is called Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator. The author is today’s guest, Andreas Bernard. He’s a professor of cultural studies at Leuphana University in Germany. He’s also the author of The Triumph of Profiling the Self in Digital Culture and The Theory of the Hashtag. But his book Lifted, I think, is a seminal work and anyone working in transportation should read it. We discussed the history of Otis Elevator, as well as many other misconceptions around elevators. What he has to share with us is absolutely fascinating. Let’s go right into it. So professor, your book opens with a wonderful line, which is, “the history of the elevator begins with a piece of theater, which took place in 1854.” Tell us a story of what happened on that day in New York City.
Yeah. I think it’s the story, which you can read everywhere. If you go to an encyclopedia or Wikipedia and read about the history of the elevator, it’s always the same piece of theatre, which is narrated. It was a day in the year of 1854, in the industrial fair in New York City, and Elisha Otis invented a certain part of the elevator, which was in fact a brake, which prevented the platform from falling down when the rope was torn or anything. Elisha Otis stood on the platform and let a co-worker of his cut the rope. And the whole audience said, “Oh, wow, it fell down.” and then it didn’t. The platform didn’t fall down because of his invention. This is kind of a theatrical piece of the invention of the elevator, how it is narrated most of the time.
When you say “story”, it appears that that’s not what happened. The elevator brake failure demonstration did not happen as it was described in the media. Is that correct?
For me, this was a big surprise because when I started my research on the history of the elevator I believed all the articles and encyclopedias. So when I came to New York City to do research for my book, I was convinced that immediately I would find a lot of articles about this very famous moment when I, for example, went through the archives of the New York Times. And then there was the surprise that I didn’t find anything. I was looking up a lot of newspaper archives for the year 1854 and for a very long time I thought it was completely a lie, a hoax that this story did not happen. And then I saw a very, very short article in a newspaper that it did happen. So Elisha Otis did invent this break in 1854, but it was no big deal. It was in a very small room. Nobody attended. The other inventions’ search got more attention. And then I thought to myself: Why did this story become such a big success and historical event when, in fact, back then in 1854 nobody was interested in it. So this was my question.
So there are images; they’re not pictures because it’s 1854. Although there were some early cameras, there are sketches and drawings of Otis standing on an elevator, surrounded by crowds cheering and clapping, right? Who created those images? Where did they come from?
Otis himself in the late 19th century. So it was a re-invention of the origin of the elevator, you could say. If you study the history of the elevator, you realize that around 1880-1890 Otis was the big monopolist of the whole elevator industry. In their heyday, the late 19th century, they were interested to also be the one who were the originators of the elevator. But in fact, it was very complicated. So in the 1850s, a lot of engineers and manufacturers competed. Who invented this, who invented that? So Otis only was one of a lot of inventors of the elevator. But 50 years later, they tried to invent this origin by printing brochures and manufacturing these images you’ve talked about. So you can say 50 years later it’s a reinvention of this moment.
In the 1850s-60s, it seems like there were dozens or hundreds of companies in the United States, and also in Europe, building elevators. But elevators didn’t become popular until the early 20th century. So how long did it take for this consolidation of the elevator sector to play out?
You could see that in New York City, elevators played a role from the 1870s on. And then you have the city like Chicago which was destroyed by the big fire in the 1870s and had a lot of new high-rising buildings built in the 1870s. And in these two cities, the elevator already played a role in the United States. In Europe, you had a very different history of the elevator because you also had mining industries and some platforms went down into the mountains. 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. 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. And then when the electric elevator came around the 1880s-1890s, Otis really had a lot of success and kind of became a monopolist. So this was at the end of the 19th century.
So all these sub-components that were required to create the modern elevator came out of, I think what you describe as his sons acquiring 14 or 15 other companies. What year was that?
I don’t know exactly anymore. But I think it was around the 1880s-1890s that Otis bought a lot of other companies. And this was the moment.
So you refer to Otis dying, Mr. Elisha Otis dying, but that his obituary wasn’t even a big thing. His sons acquired all these companies and each of these companies had a different sub-technology. It was the convergence of all these things into the 1890s which kicked off the elevator sector. So what else was required, besides electrification, for elevators to become popular?
In the early days, there were different technologies. So for example, you had the technology of a hydraulic elevator, which had a kind of piston below the cabin. So the problem was if you went upstairs, let’s say 10-15 meters, with the elevator, you had to also sink this piston 10 or 15 meters into the earth because this was kind of the fundament of the elevator. And the rocks and the rocky soil, for example, in a city like New York City it was not possible to go down 15 meters into the earth with this piston. So this technology did not work in certain cities. This was a technology which came from Europe, for example. And so one question was, what is elevator technology, what is the best technology? You had the rope, for example. You had hydraulic technology, this was a big thing. And then for example, you also had the control system. In the very, very early elevators, the lift boy had to pull the rope to control the elevator to bring it from story to story. And it was very difficult to bring the machine to a stop on the level of the story, you know, not that there was like one meter and even less to the story. And then there were big inventions in control technology around 1900. You had the push button. And the push button, for example, is also a very important invention in the history of the elevator. Or you had the system of security doors until around 1900. For example, the elevator was already in operation and if somebody on the eighth or 11th floor opened the door, it was possible that the guy fell down and died. And also around 1900, there was this new security technology that you couldn’t open the door to the elevator when the machine was in operation. So things like this. So security was a key argument. Again, Otis was only one of a lot of companies who worked on the establishment of the elevator.
And so it was this consolidation in the 1880s and 90s, that his sons were responsible for, that united all these technologies in the United States. And that became the American monopolies. So while this was going on, what was happening in Europe?
You have to understand that types of architecture, the types of dwelling houses in Europe, had a very, very different history from the US. So when you go back to the period of time shortly before the elevator, let’s say 1860-1870, and you go to cities like Paris, Vienna, Budapest, Berlin, you already have a lot of multi-story buildings in these cities. A lot of multi-story tenement houses were without an elevator. If you look at the situation in the U.S. and the history of the elevator in the 1860s and 70s, there were very few multi-story tenement houses. So there were models, like the British and English system of one story or two story houses for families. And this is the big difference. In European cities, you had to install the elevator in already existing multi-story houses. And you remember from your visits, let’s say in a city like Vienna, you have all the old iron steel elevators, which were put into the center of the staircases 20-30-40 years after the house was built. In a city like New York or Chicago, from a very early time the elevator was the core of the building. It was built first. There are great pictures, for example, when the old Waldorf Astoria was torn down, and at the side of the old Waldorf Astoria, the Empire State building was built. They tore down everything in the hotel except for the elevator shafts. The elevator shafts were the center of the new building. And this is the big difference that in the US the elevator from a very early time in the big cities since the 1880s was the center of buildings. It was already a closed center. And to my knowledge, there are very few open iron steel elevators in US cities. But if you go to a city like Vienna or Berlin or Paris in Europe, you still to this day can see a lot of open elevators. Well, this is a totally different concept. Because if there was a big fight, for example, between old school architects and new architects in Europe around 1900 if you want to install an elevator into an old building. And the old architects said this destroys the whole concept of the building. I think you didn’t have these discussions in the US because the stairway in tenement buildings in the U.S. is never used, right? Would you say that stairways in multi-story buildings are only used to exit for emergencies?
Let’s talk about this because you have the first chapter of your book and the introduction is absolutely fascinating. But later, you devote more than one chapter to the social and cultural consequences of elevators and how they differ in Europe and the United States. And it didn’t even occur to me when I first started thinking about the analogy of autonomous vehicles and elevators that the social center, like the center of gravity of a building in Europe, was in the central staircase which was literally open for ventilation, and that you could not go to your home without meeting your neighbors. And that this elimination of that by the insertion of an elevator mechanism down the center annihilated that. Can you talk to us a little bit about these consequences on a deeper level?
Yes. For everybody who is interested in sometimes reading old European novels, if you read novels, for example, by this famous naturalist author Emma Sola, who wrote a lot of novels in Paris in the late 19th century, you always have this scenery. There is, let’s say, a tenement building that’s four stories high. The whole plot of the novel arises because people meet each other in the stairways. Because as you said, when somebody living in the fourth story has to go up the open staircase, an open staircase, and he meets his neighbors. And this causes drama, misunderstanding or intrigue. I’m from Europe, I haven’t been raised in the U.S. but as far as I know, this concept of the open stairway was not very well known in the U.S. So in the US, when the tenement buildings and multi-story buildings were built, you immediately had the closed elevator shaft. If you compare this European situation with the open staircase to let’s say, the concept of the modern tenement house with an elevator in the middle, then you can say you only know the house you live in. You only know the lobby downstairs and the story where you live. And you can say that the multi story building is only an arrangement of layers, like the first floor, second floor, and third floor. In between, there is nothing. So there are no half stories except maybe in science fiction movies or so. But in reality, there are no half stories and the European concept was totally different.
You’re referring to Being John Malkovich, I assume.
I wanted to mention it, but I thought it’s a half story.
I have lived in a high rise building most of my life in New York City, and in Miami now. And it is true that the elevator kind of folds, I guess, not even folds, it’s like if you take a piece of paper and fold it over and over and over and over, it’s almost a square root of social possibilities that’s the result of the elevator. You don’t meet anyone except those on your own floor or the people in the garage and maybe not even then. And that is interesting. Talk about, if you can, the inversion of real estate values. Because it didn’t even occur to me what real estate value looked like in a multi-story building before the elevator. And then after.
Yeah. This was for me maybe the most interesting part of my research because I remembered from reading novels, for example, that until the late 19th century, buildings, or let’s say apartments or rooms, became cheaper. They became, in the less acceptable condition, smaller. So this was in the age before the elevator became standard in European cities. And in the upper floors, let’s say in the attic, the lift for example, was for the workers of the wealthier families. And if you’re in Paris, you have this term called (Couldn’t locate proper term) that means the room for the housekeeper. And this was like living on an upper floor. Then you had, for example, the attic itself where people dry their laundry or they had chambers where they had their old furniture. In European literature, if you read novels from the early 19th century, it was always a meeting point for illegitimate lovers. If you had an affair, you met in the upper story. And then, after a very, very short time, I would say in the US between 1860 and 1890 and in Europe maybe between 1890 and 1920, everything turned upside down. You have new types of space, which are an effect of the elevator. You have the penthouse. You have the roof garden. You have the chief executive suite. And within 30 years, you could say, the sphere of money, the sphere of power, also the sphere of legitimate sexuality. If you think about the penthouse for newly wed couples, you have a totally new set of room types. This is all an effect of the elevator. And I think this is maybe the core of my research in this book to bring together space, symbolics, symbolics of space, and technology. You can say that a whole new order of symbolic space in the multi-story building is an effect of the technical invention of the elevator. And that was very interesting for me.
So you mentioned earlier that it required electrification for elevators to become ubiquitous, and also that different building types had different requirements. An older building required a central shaft, which was a staircase, and a newer building often did not. You also talk about how the elevator was established at different rates of speed in Europe and The United States. So can you tell us about, say, where elevators became ubiquitous first, and where they became ubiquitous last?
It depends on if you only want to mention elevators that went upstairs or if you also mentioned elevators that went downwards. Because in a very strict chronology, the first elevators were elevators for mining, going downstairs and bringing the mining workers down into the mountain. This was a vertical transport, but it wasn’t an elevator. So you could say the first branches, and the first types of elevator buildings, were very attractive and very successful. Where hotels, on the one hand, and commercial buildings like insurance buildings, for example. So the first elevators in New York, for example, were in hotels and big insurance companies. So this was maybe like the avant garde. And I don’t know if you could say where there were the last elevators. In Europe, as I said, there was a delay in the development. So Europe started later than the U.S. because of this different tradition. But at the latest, after 1945, for example, in Germany, there was a law that every building that is four stories or higher has to have an elevator. It’s a law.
Wait, but were there people still building buildings that were 7,8,9, 10 stories without elevators into the middle of the 20th century?
I mean, in German cities, for example, on your pin settings there were very few buildings that were higher than seven or eight stories. Anyway, so you had these laws. There are laws and a lot of European cities that you are not allowed to build higher than five stories, because the upper line of the tenement houses has to be even. But yeah there were buildings in Europe that, say in the 1920s, were five stories high without an elevator.
It’s fascinating that there would appear to be a range of almost 50 years between new cities being built with the ability to have high density structures, unlocked by elevator technology. And then on the other end, we almost had to wait for the end of World War Two, because of the bombings and destruction, for the same types of structures to enter into urban cores. They’re fascinating. You bring up the story of Lewis Fleck, in the context of the origin of a technical fact. The discursive mechanisms. Can you explain this concept of a discursive mechanism in the origin of a technical fact because I’m fascinated by the persistence of the narrative. That the safety brake demonstration in 1854 actually happened and that Otis would want that to become the story.
I think it has two reasons. On the one hand, it’s really a political strategy. A company that was very powerful at a certain time of history, let’s say the late 19th century, had the economic means to print hundreds of thousands of brochures with these paintings of a historical event in 1854, which was not historical then. A company that has the economic means and that has the infrastructure to reinvent history. That’s the one thing. But the other thing is that, of course, not every strategy like this happens to be successful. So there must be another, there must be another reason. And I think the reason is that thIt can say that it’s the origin of a technical artifact, like the elevator, which is a moment of danger. And a moment of risk. And a moment of a turning point. Everybody thinks the platform goes down and then because of the brakes, it stays stable. And Otis says a sentence which we might have never said, in fact, it’s also been mentioned, “all safe gentlemen, all safe.” So I think it’s a combination. It’s a combination of the economic, political strategy of an enterprise, and the narrative of a moment of danger, which is, I think, in the history of technology and the history of science always a good point. It’s a very dense moment. Does it go down? And maybe then the elevator would not have been invented for decades, because it was a big accident, or not. So I think it’s a combination of these two things.
It’s really interesting that over and over, and it’s not just elevators, that people want to believe that history turns on a single event. And that there is a, and this is a quote from your book, straight path to knowledge. But is there ever a straight path to knowledge?
Yeah, that’s a great question. Maybe, but I would say in very, very rare cases. Ludwik Fleck, the philosopher of science you have quoted, himself worked on a similar thing. He himself worked on an invention to cure syphilis in 1906. It was a test which was very important for erasing syphilis. And there’s the same thing. Everybody says it was a certain doctor called Baseman who was the guy because he invented the Baseman reaction. But in his book Ludwik Fleck can show that it was a collective of 20, 30, 40, 50 different doctors who had worked at the same time on the same problem and it was a pastiche of insight. And I think, for writing history and historiography, this is a very, very crucial thing. You have to be careful to say how it was in reality but if we dare to say back then in reality, 100-150 years ago, it was very heterogeneous, contingent, and arbitrary that things happened. And history as a narrative tends to homogenize things, tends to cut out contingency, tends to make things like in a plot. They’re logical and dense in one moment of insight because it’s just a better story. It’s a better narration, but it’s often a lie.
And so it seems like the Otis pastiche was the roll up of the 14 or 15 companies by Otis’ sons, which happened decades later. Assembling the pieces of safety, which led to the breakout ubiquity of elevators in the 20th century. Among them was the addition of electricity. The other one was steel frame construction because you needed all three to build skyscrapers. Obviously in Europe and the United States at the time, the telegraph existed. People were aware in both continents what was happening in the other one. When did the elevator manufacturers begin competing against each other and entering each other’s markets?
In the US and Europe or altogether?
I know that in the U.S. there were a lot of inventors. A lot of small companies were competing against each other. I think I tried to describe it in my book in the early chapters that there were different small companies and there were maybe more ingenious engineers than Eli Otis. But they lost. But this part of the history I did not research so precisely that I can say a lot of names or so, but I remember that maybe the sons of Otis were like the driving force in monopolizing, and they were the driving force in rewriting the history. In Europe, there weren’t many big elevator companies because Otis, for example, also went to Europe and they were one of the biggest players in Europe too. So it’s really interesting to compare, for example, the elevator history to the inventions in digital technology in the last 30 or 40 years. And I think there are already similar tendencies to re-inventing history and to reinventing origin about how things happen. So I think if you analyze this with the personal computer you’d maybe find similar tendencies.
You mentioned in your book that the installation of elevators unlocks many other technologies, which would appear to have benefited people in these buildings. Can you talk a little bit about these other technologies?
Yes. I think it’s obvious that during the same years, during the same period of time houses communicate with each other and communicate within in different forms because, you can say, the tenement house, in the early 19th century, for example, there was no infrastructure within the house. There were no shafts, there were no bridges, there were no cubes. And then, during 10, 20, 30 years there were a lot of communication tubes within the house. So you have the elevator shaft, but you also have the tubes for central heating. You have the cables for electricity. And I think that’s very interesting because in the mid 19th century, or in the third quarter of the 19th century, houses became, you could say, a communication object. They communicate with other houses. They communicate with, let’s say, electric plants in the city, which are responsible for heating or for water. And I was very interested in; the communication aspect of houses. So they are not a single monolith anymore. A house which is a house closed in the four walls. But the house is a communication device, you could say.
You talk about all of the companies that the Otis brothers acquired in the late 19th century that combined multiple safety technologies. It would appear that the concept of safety itself was resolved by the early 20th century. So how long did it take for people to come to trust elevators? Because they still had elevator operators for another 50 or 60 years.
Yeah, I think this is a very important aspect. Riding an elevator in the beginning was a pretty risky thing. And especially because people know that in mining, which was kind of the pre-history of elevators, accidents were pretty regular. So that is also maybe the third reason why the Elisha Otis thing in 1854 is so deeply considered as the invention of the elevator because it was the aspect of safety. And safety, in the beginning, was the key problem of the elevator. Because of the invention of Elisha Otis, riding an elevator was a very secure and very safe means of transportation. And there’s a funny statistic that I think somebody countered that using the stairs is about 10,000 times more dangerous than using the elevato, because you can always break your leg on the stairs. And so, the interesting thing is, it was so safe but still people had so much fear. So, although few accidents occurred after a certain time, people were still so frightened using it. And that’s very interesting. I think the safety of the elevator was such a big deal that from the 1880-1890s on elevators very, very rarely fell down anymore. So big, deadly accidents where like 10 people in an elevator died happened for the last time in the late 19th century. And then it maybe happens worldwide once every 10 years or so but it’s totally safe. But still people are so frightened. That’s very interesting.
It seems like every technology has these stages. The first stage is there is an event which is glorified as it works, it’s here and it works. And the second stage is a moral panic, it doesn’t really work and it’s actually really dangerous. And then the next stage is the trough of disillusionment. They can’t work, it’ll never work. And then it comes back over time. But these outlier incidents still plague us.
And maybe if I can add, it’s so interesting to see in the early history of the elevator what kind of diseases the cabin seemed to produce. You know, because there was this term elevator sickness, for example, around Nigeria. And the elevator sickness meant that it’s a danger if the cabin goes down so fast that your spine, you know, the nerves and your spine, get affected. And you can get trauma like in an accident, for example. So people refuse to ride an elevator because they thought they would really get hurt. And then another thing I was interested in in my book was, if you think about the history of claustrophobia, when did the history of claustrophobia, of fear in very, very dense spaces, occur? It occurred exactly in that period of time when the elevator came up. The first description of claustrophobia in psychiatry is from 1869. And you can trace back the invention of this psychiatric disease to the elevator. So you can always see how new technology like the elevator invents new forms of sickness.
There’s a wonderful Twitter account called Pessimists Archive, are you familiar with it?
They did an interview with me, yeah.
Of course he did. I always love seeing the stories there about, you know, it’s like, will trains cause brain damage? Will the telephone rot children’s brains? There’s a recent one about that in the 80s, should video games have a minimum age of 18? So at the very end of the introduction, you refer to a 1911 Congress. The line is, “statistics show that elevator accidents can be traced without exception to recklessness or carelessness during installation or repair.” This is 1911. So it would seem that the fundamental components of functionality and safety were there. I think those were the brake, the double doors for the shaft, the elevator leveling mechanisms to bring them to the right floor, and some type of automated system for people to press a button. And yet, many decades passed before elevator operators… it seemslike they were standard well into the 20th century. Why?
Yeah, this is a great question. This is really interesting because I would say for every person in the world still living now, elevators are a space where we can just go in and operate it ourselves. So even a person who is now 100 years old knows elevators that can be operated by themselves. And still, as you said, it took such a long path to do this. And if you go, I mean for for the listeners of this podcast to maybe go to Europe this this summer fall, you can discover in elevators in Vienna, for example, in very old buildings in the center of Vienna, you still see this little poster in the elevators where it says, “Forbidden for children under 14.” So they are still there, sometimes. This was for a very long time the case that you thought you had to have somebody, an elevator operator, who professionally is able to do this. This goes back to the previous technologies of control. So as we said before, in the early decades of the elevators, there was no push button. There were different forms of control, which involved the rope. So you could just, as an elevator operator, pull the rope or there were different technologies where you had to have skills because there was no automatic guarantee that if you wanted to go to the first floor that the cabin chest stopped even on the first because it was like an art. And until let’s say in the First World War, elevator operator was a profession. You had to learn. For three years, you had to study, you had to write articles on the technology to do internships in elevators. And then the push button came, and the push button changed everything. The push button made it easy for every child just to push the button and the elevator came. And the push button was the end of the elevator operator. And today, as you know, you only have elevator operators and lift boys for representational reasons like in luxury hotels. Or to do shopping in a luxury multi-story store. But you could say the push button killed the elevator operator.
Well, let’s hold on a minute. You raised two very interesting points that I’m not sure I saw in your book. You claimed that to become an elevator operator, you had to go through three years of training. Was there a shortage of elevator operators? Was elevator deployment constrained by the timeline and costs of training someone to become a professional?
Interesting. I must say I don’t know this. I didn’t come across this in my research. But it’s an interesting question.
Because today, you know, there are debates about automation and job creation and potentially job loss with automated vehicles. And the trucking companies would claim that there’s a truck driver shortage. First in the training to become a truck driver and then there’s the inconvenience of being far from home. And so I find that fascinating. I’d never heard that elevator operators were that difficult to become licensed. Interesting. Now, given the design of early elevators, especially the hydraulic ones, and the, I guess, passenger desire to get to your desired floor at speed, but also the desire to arrive at that floor comfortably. The skill of the operator would determine both the comfort and the safety, is that correct?
So with the arrival of the push button and the automation of these other components that increased the safety, is that right?
Of course they increased the safety, but they also led to a certain you could say alienation between the passenger and the elevator. Because if you think about the relation of origin effect, if there’s an elevator operator and he pulls the rope, then you see which power and which movement causes the movement of the cabin. And the interesting thing is that the push button created a lot of fear because the relation between the origin and the effect was cut. Because if you push a button, and then the cabin comes down and stops in the right story, it’s kind of magic. And there are very interesting quotes in the 1910-1920s, when the push button was new, that people were kind of frightened. They said, what kind of hell machine is the elevator? You push a button, and then the machine comes.” And my hypothesis was that the genre of elevator horror movies in the 70s and 80s, like elevator of death and there was a Dutch movie in the 80s where the elevator killed people by intention. It’d decapitate people and cut their heads. My hypothesis was that this symbol of fear can only be possible in the age of the push button. Because only in the age of the push button you could say the elevator suddenly has his own life. And the elevator is a bad character, a criminal. Without the elevator operator within with his rope, this imagination couldn’t have been possible.
So you also claim that the push button eliminated the elevator operator, and yet if the push button was available by the early 20th century, why did elevator operators continue to be so popular for another four decades?
But only for representative reasons, I would say.
So they’re a luxury or symbolism?
Yeah. For the passenger to have somebody who does the labor. I think it’s a clever thing. I mean, this is interesting. Altogether, I would say, the political status of an elevator, because the lift boy brings class difference into the elevator. Here is the passenger. There’s the guy who serves you. And this is in contradiction, I would say, to the general status of the elevator, because in my opinion, the elevator is a democratic means of transportation. Think about classes. There is no business class in elevators. There’s maybe an express elevator for the chiefs, chief executives, but the cabin itself doesn’t have classes. Is it in U.S., like in Europe, that there’s always this little sign for people, or 300 kilograms or so?
We have that.
And so you can see everybody has the same weight in an elevator, it’s always on. It’s always like, an average weight. And I had a little chapter in the book about the late monarchy, like monarchism in Europe, until the first world war came together with the invention of the elevator. I found different passages in articles that all the monarchs, the Russian Czar, or the Austrian King, or the British King, didn’t like the elevators. They didn’t want to ride elevators. I think it’s because the aura, like the aura of the monarch, demands space. Around the monarch, there must be free space. And the elevator is so dense and narrow that the aura can’t grow. So they didn’t like to ride the elevator.
Not even alone? Or with others?
They were never alone, like the protocol of monarchism. They always had their personnel assistance with them and maybe alone, it was okay but like in the official situation of a protocol maybe not. There was in the hotel Adlon, the most luxurious hotel in Berlin, there was a marriage between I think the son of the Russian Czar and the daughter of the German King. And they were all located in the hotel Adlon, and the Russian Czar refused to ride the elevator. So I read that 150 guests had to be relocated so that everybody who had the appointment with the Czar lived on the first floor so that they did not have to ride the elevator. So it was a big problem for them.
So this notion of the straight path to knowledge and the false narrative of like the single pivotal event. What other areas of invention and technology have you observed this in? What are you working on now?
At the moment, I’m working on a book on the history of epidemics. Because when COVID started one and a half years ago, I thought to myself, “okay, now if there’s a lockdown, and you’re not allowed to go out, why not study the history of all that?” So I started to work on that. I’m thinking to myself, if there are similar, similar tendencies or similar constellations in the history of the pandemics as in the history of the elevator. But I’ve never thought about it so far. So on the top of my head, I don’t find any similarities. But maybe if we talk about it, I’ve got some thoughts on that.
So as an American, and I went to good schools, if you ask me the history of aviation, my first answer would be the Wright brothers, of course. And yet there were many forms of flight tested and they weren’t just winged flight, there were balloons, for centuries. For the Wright brothers, there is a line drawn back to them, certainly in this country. I suppose in France, people might talk about Monsieur Beliau. And there were others. When I was reading your book, I kept trying to imagine what other pivotal events in flight one could point to that were analogous to the safety brake mechanism of Elisha Otis. And I’m not sure I can. There were try planes. Then you had biplanes. Then they moved to a single wing. Then you had propellers. Then you move to jets, and each subsequent new improvement brought with it its own flaws and problems to be solved in the interest of both efficiency but also consumer trust. I remember, I’m sure any European would remember, in the 1980s, Airbus had a new type of technology that was supposed to be safer, and yet it had a crash. I vaguely recall from back then thinking, “Oh, my goodness, Airbus can’t be safe.” And yet statistically today we know that they are as safe as Boeing and they are both incredibly safe. And yet these moral panics have pursued them both to this day. And that seems to pursue vaccines as well.
Yeah, the history of vaccination is really interesting. Again, you see that a single tragedy, a single catastrophe in vaccination can stop a whole program. In the 20 century, there were two big catastrophes in vaccination. One is in the US in the 1950s, a polio vaccine, which was bad, and a lot of people died in 1955. And this type of vaccine went off the market. And in Germany, in the city of Lubeck in 1930, I think 52 children died because of a bad vaccine against diphtheria. The whole vaccination movement against diphtheria was stopped for years in Germany because of this only single catastrophe. And I think if you study history of science, history of technology, history of medicine, you will always find these big events where catastrophe led to a closing of a certain invention or just re-invented the whole history of it. So I think that’s a fascinating topic. How accidents or mistakes or catastrophes influenced the history of certain things.
Lewis Anslow, who’s the gentleman who runs the pessimists archive, which is one of my favorite Twitter accounts, I love it so much. He refers to two ends of the continuum of how we perceive technology. On one end, you have tech utopianism, which it’s perfect, it’s always perfect, there is no error. And then tech phobia in which any error is a sign of failure. And he talks about his concept of what he hopes will become more common, which is tech progressivism. It’s like we must improve, we must learn from our mistakes. Do you think that there’s any hope for tech progressivism as new technologies emerge?
It’s interesting, but I think it lies and it’s maybe in the nature of men to react like you have just described it. And for me, as a student, I studied literature. I grew up in the 70s and I watched a lot of TV. And then my parents always said, “Why don’t you read a book?” TV, it’s so dangerous and it’s not good for you. And it’s for your imaginations. Why don’t you read a book because it makes you calm, it makes you relaxed, it makes you educated. Then I studied literature and I found out that until the 19th century, exactly the same was said to novels. Around 1800, there was the sickness of novel thickness. It was especially the sickness of girls who read too many novels. And then people said, “Don’t read too much. Study, don’t read too many novels.” Study the Bible, or go to nature. And then at university, I tried to go back, back, back and then you could see, for example, that in the 15th century, or in the late 15th century, printed books were invented. The printed books themselves were poisoned. And then the monsk said, “If you read printed books, you won’t understand God.” It’s always the same. And now I have a son, and he always plays video games, and then I tend to tell him, “Hey, why don’t you watch TV?” Like my parents said, “Why don’t you read a book?” Now that TV is so old, it’s already in the empire of good media. So it almost goes on and on.
So tell us about the significance of the elevator, I guess, cabin design.
Yeah, that’s a big topic because, you know, everybody who rides an elevator feels kind of awkward. So, the elevator, you could say, is the space in an urban life where anonymity and intimacy come together in an absolutely unique way. You meet people which you have never met, which are strangers, but you are stuck together with them in an almost intimate constellation. I think this very unique relationship fields and leads to the awkwardness of the elevator ride. And so, elevator interior design has to offer digressions and has to offer things where you can just look and try not to be so close to strangers. And I think this is like, for example, you can look at which story you are, first or second. So you can look at this place, you can look at mirrors, you can look at yourself. So, I think this is a very interesting point, that it’s so awkward sometimes to ride elevators.
Is this, in your opinion, an argument for or against a shared autonomous vehicle? Because when you get into a taxi and that awkwardness occurs with a human driver, some people don’t want to talk and some do. You may or may not get in a car with someone you want to talk to. But in a shared autonomous vehicle, you can volunteer to get into one that is shared with others. This happens two or three folds. So do you think people will want to ride in shared vehicles or not?
It’s a totally interesting question because I think that with shared autonomous vehicles, this old question of the elevator comes back. And it comes back in an extended or radicalized version. Because in an elevator, you’re together for 30 seconds and in an autonomous vehicle you are together. How long? Maybe 30 minutes. So you know, it’s a social experiment. And it’s very interesting because when you watch a movie, in cinema and TV, where people and strangers are together in an elevator, so many times the elevator gets stuck. And people learn to know each other, and then they confess some truth. You can bet that in a TV show or in a movie, when people are riding an elevator who don’t know each other, the cabin will get stuck and people will confess the truth. I think this is the tradition of the confessional. The confessional in Christian church was always a very closed space, because like the truth of God can be there better. I would say maybe the autonomous vehicle also can become a new concept that people come together with and there’s a big truth in it. It’s interesting.
There is a television show in the United States called Taxicab Confessions where people confess to the driver. So do you think that an autonomous vehicle, because there’s no human driver in it, will become more attractive to people who want to ride alone?
Yes, obviously, yes. Because everybody has their awkward experiences with taxi drivers or with Uber drivers. So for me, that would be a very attractive concept. If I had the possibility to take a cab in a big city where there’s no driver, I would always go there and not to a human driver.
Do you care to speculate about the similarities between elevator history and how autonomous vehicles might play out?
I must say it’s a fascinating concept. I must be honest, I would have never thought about it without you. So you brought this question to my mind that there is an analogy. And it’s really great. I think on the one hand, things tend to repeat now in the development of autonomous vehicles, which, unknown by the history of the elevator. But I think the big, big difference is the period of time you spend either in an elevator or in an autonomous vehicle because the longest elevator rides are not longer than one minute. And in an autonomous vehicle and some years or some decades, maybe you go from East Coast to West Coast or so. And you have days. So I think the big thing will be as a lay person, I say this as an absolute lay person, is how can you entertain the passengers of an autonomous vehicle? But this would be a question for you. Is this maybe one of the key research fields now in autonomous vehicles except for safety standards? How can you entertain people in a car who don’t have to ride themselves? Is this a big thing?
Well, it is a thing. Having read your book several times now, I feel like the analogy between elevators and autonomous vehicles has to be split. Elevators are analogous to trains, as you point out in your book, the vertical railway concept was discussed in the 19th century in the media. So they are analogous to trains and four wheeled vehicles and you have to split the analogy. It’s not a one to one correlation. So certainly the time in autonomous vehicles is longer, but people also have cell phones. So smartphones dominate people’s attention, whether they’re in vehicles or not, just often walking down the street. So I think there is an evolution of the passenger cabin that will create experiences we have not yet seen. Some have suggested that in-vehicle movie theater, but that would be predicated on a 90 minute drive. And yet the majority of time people spend in cars is in a commute, which is 20 to 25 minutes. So I think that a new form of content would emerge around that time interval that we’ve not yet seen. Although many television comedies are 22 minutes in length once you subtract commercials. So we’ve already seen a very short form video and I think new forms will emerge, but the most successful ones may not come and probably shouldn’t come from the autonomous developers. Because, again, as you pointed out in the 1890swhen Otis’ sons made their consolidation of the market, they had to acquire 14 or 15 companies. Every one of those companies did some form of safety and automation and they all specialized in doing one thing really well. And it was this pastiche that led to elevators, and I think this pastiche is what will lead to the most successful autonomous vehicle developers. And that if anyone tries to do everything, they’re not going to be successful. I think some specializations are necessary. That’s one part of the answer. I suppose another analogy to elevators would be the necessity of multiple external enabling technologies, electrification of elevators for power, and the steel frame infrastructure. So in the same way, this is why I love your book so much, because it seems so clear to me that history repeats itself. Different cities have different geographies. For vehicles it’s horizontal and for elevators it’s vertical. So for elevators to propagate, vertical geography had to adapt or be created around the technologies. And so for ground autonomous vehicles, different cities will have different rollouts over time, specifically because of what you saw in elevator history. Some cities are going to be easier to deploy in others much more difficult. Some cities will be in high demand, some less so. So I think we’ll see multi-year, multi-decade rollouts in different parts of the United States and different nations.
I think it will be very interesting which event in the history of autonomous vehicle driving will have the function of Otis’ safety brake in the history of elevators.
Yeah, I wonder that too. I think multiple companies have already attempted to create that event and they have been unable to make it stick. Without naming names, because this show is meant to be agnostic, I’ve always objected, and your book crystallized this in my mind, to exaggerated claims. Because we know that they are obscure and they teach the wrong lesson. They teach the wrong lesson. And it makes it more difficult for young people to understand the type of work and research necessary to create things and invent things if they believe that one’s life in history comes down to a single moment. Because it rarely does. Has it ever? I can’t think of any. I mean to get to the moon, rockets had to go up many times. And unfortunately, you know, there were some terrible disasters on the way. Is there anything else you’d like to add, Professor?
No, just that it was a great interview and it’s really very, very interesting which kind of relations you unite between present technologies and the historical. It was great talking to you.
I’ll give you one last one. In the weeks and months since I read your book, I kept going back to it and finding more… I could select almost any number of pages to find a great quote. But the one that really struck me was that today, five companies dominate the elevator business but that dominance is only 49% of all elevator sales in the world. And this is more than 100 years after the narrative of a single company owning it, and creating safety. I think that will be true of almost any invention. Professor, thank you so much for joining us and if we want to learn more about you and what you’re working on, where should we find you online?
If you just Google my name and my university, it’s called Leuphana, L E U P H A N A, then you’ll find me. And a lot of my books are translated to English. So yeah, I would be glad if you’re interested. And thanks again for this great conversation.
And thank you.
Well, that was absolutely fascinating. I’m a huge fan of Professor Bernhardt. His book, which I think mandatory reading for anyone in mobility or transportation is Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please connect with us on social media. We’re on Twitter at No Parking Pod. I’m everywhere on social media, but especially on Twitter at AlexRoy144. That’s the numbers 1 4 4. Please share No Parking with a friend. Like us. Subscribe. Give us five star reviews wherever you listen to podcasts. And this show is managed by the Civic Entertainment Group. Until next time, I’m Alex Roy and this is the No Parking Podcast.