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Who Will Win The Self-Driving Car Race? The Clues Lie In Elevator History

Who will win the self-driving car race? People ask me this all the time, and the question doesn’t make much sense. It assumes there actually is a race, with a clear finish line and one winner. Does anyone remember who “won” trains or ships or aviation? The Wright Brothers didn’t “win” the aviation business when their biplane flew 852 feet in 1903.

Luckily, history provides several examples of transportation technologies that were as transformative to the 20th century as self-driving promises to be in the 21st. But only one of them is uniquely analogous, because of the disappearance of the human operators that were once deemed essential.

I’m talking about elevators. 

These “ascending rooms” — then operated by trained human attendants — were once considered rare and exciting, alongside blimps, ferris wheels, and roller coasters. Now they’re so common no one thinks twice about getting into one all alone, pressing a button, and safely riding to one’s destination.

I wanted to know what elevator history might teach us about the future of self-driving, so I tracked down Andreas Bernard’s exhaustive book, LIFTED: A Cultural History of Elevators. I started with the obvious questions: Was there an elevator race? And, if so, who won?

A forest of elevators

The true history of elevators isn’t a race, so much as a handful of trees growing victoriously above a forest of trunks and fallen branches. Brilliant people made mistakes and hype obscured solutions, the media missed the real stories, and there were many failures, even among the eventual “winners.” Especially interesting is how popular history tends to gloss over these twists and turns. Bernard writes:

“One look at how the chapters of current histories of technology are organized…reveals that the way technical innovations become established continues to be portrayed as a chronicle of triumphant progress, an unbroken series of adjustments and improvements: an apparatus that is at first imperfect and exotic becomes progressively improved, right down to the present day.”

Reality, of course, is never that simple.

Historians disagree when exactly elevators first emerged. Some suggest the Great Pyramid at Giza was constructed with a human-powered pulley-and-rope system 4500 years ago. Greek mathematician Archimedes allegedly built his first elevator in 236 BC, which may have been powered by animals.

Fast forward to 1670, when, as Bernard writes, mathematician Erhard Weigel “installed [in his home] an arrangement of pulleys to convey him from one of its seven stories to another.” French King Louis XV had “Flying Tables” to deliver food up from his kitchen, and in 1743 the Palace of Versailles installed a passenger-powered “Flying Chair” for his mistresses. The Duchess of Bourbon was allegedly trapped between floors in such a chair for three hours; the walls had to be broken down to get her out.

The first widespread commercial deployment of elevators was in German mines, but even after Wilhelm Albert invented the twisted iron rope in 1834, accidents were so common that German regulators banned the transport of miners by cable until 1859.

And then we have American inventor and industrialist Peter Cooper — considered one of the greatest minds of his time — who broke ground in 1853 on the Cooper Union School for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City. Cooper was so confident in the future of elevators that he insisted on including a nine-story shaft ready for an elevator car of the highest possible loading capacity, which he predicted would be circular.

There was just one snag: no one manufactured circular elevator cars at the time.

Elisha Otis successfully performing the free-fall safety demonstration at the 1853 New York World’s Fair, where he publicly cut the platform’s hoisting rope to showcase his safety locking mechanism. The demonstration was integral to garnering public trust and willingness to ride in traction elevators, eventually leading to the skyscrapers and elevators we know today. (Corbis / Wikipedia)

Safety didn’t happen in one day

While Cooper waited for an elevator to fit his shaft, the legendary Elisha Otis was preparing for what many cite as the beginning of modern elevators: the 1854 Crystal Palace demonstration of his “safety elevator,” a system which locked the passenger platform in place if the overhead rope was cut. Today it’s remembered as a spectacular demonstration, but media outlets at the time barely mentioned it.

“While the New York Times carried almost daily reports on the Exhibition,” Bernard writes, “including enthusiastic full-page articles about main attractions such as the hot air balloon ascent…not a single line was devoted to the epoch-making event in the Crystal Palace.”

But the Otis mythology was just beginning. In 1857, Otis installed his first commercial passenger elevator in the Haughwout Department Store in Lower Manhattan, which was heralded as the “world’s first successful passenger elevator,” but London’s “Ascending Room” had given tourists a view of that city’s skyline 34 years earlier, and America’s first passenger elevator was actually a steam-powered model installed in the Bunker Hill Monument in 1843.

Then, in 1859, another New Yorker — coincidentally named Otis Tufts — patented the first elevator design using a fully enclosed passenger cabin and benches with a 20-inch wide iron screw running vertically through its center. Tufts’ “Vertical Railway” or “Vertical Screw Elevator” was painfully slow and expensive, but — with no cable to cut —it was incredibly safe. One was installed in New York’s Fifth Avenue Hotel, and another in Philadelphia’s Continental Hotel, where they became tourist attractions. Tufts enjoyed a period of minor fame, but as buildings got taller, his steam-driven Vertical Railway didn’t scale in speed or efficiency, and he is largely forgotten today. Meanwhile, in 1860, the Haughwout Department store removed Elisha Otis’ rope elevator “because the public refused to accept it.”

Elisha Otis died in 1861 after filing a patent for a freight elevator using his safety mechanism, after which sons Charles and Norton focused on meeting growing demand by ramping up elevator production and acquiring rivals. For a few decades, elevator companies and patents proliferated, and installations greatly accelerated as steam power was replaced by hydraulics. With electricity came faster speeds and the possibility for automation — specifically, the opening and closing of doors, which were not yet a standard feature.

Decades later, people were still falling down elevator shafts, because doors — if they were present — didn’t automatically open and close. Modern elevators have two sets of doors: one for each floor, and another for the elevator itself, but late into the 19th century many had only one pair, or none.

Looking back at this tumultuous period for the infant industry, it’s clear that Otis’ achievements didn’t “solve” elevator safety in 1854. He only solved one aspect of it. It took many years of iteration from other inventors to refine the experience. Otis was just the beginning.

Nothing succeeds in a vacuum

Let’s take a step back to consider the confluence of invention, genius, supply, and demand that occurred between 1870 and 1900 to enable the proliferation of the elevator. The literal rise of the electric elevator would not have been possible were it not for the contemporaneous war between electricity magnates Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.

Builders around the globe were waiting to see what kind of current would be most effective. Edison’s Direct Current (DC) transmission range was relatively limited compared to Westinghouse’s Alternating Current (AC). And what about power supply? Would every building need its own generator? Or might a single generator power a neighborhood, or even a city? The winner of what became known as The War of the Currents would decide not only the cost of powering elevators, but of building and city infrastructure too.

Electrification allowed for more elevator passengers, the automation of safety mechanisms and controls, and much higher speeds, which were essential to make a business case for skyscrapers. In turn, taller buildings required ventilation, plumbing, and…more power transmitted over greater distances.

Glue together these key moments in the history of electricity, elevator safety and automation, and the timeline becomes very, very interesting:

  • 1867 Otis Brothers & Co open factory in Yonkers, NY 
  • 1874 American J.W. Meaker patents elevator door safety system
  • 1874 Schindler Elevator founded in Switzerland
  • 1880s The War of the Currents begins
  • 1880 German Werner Von Siemens builds first electric elevator
  • 1883 Schuyler Wheeler builds first American electric elevator
  • 1884 9-story Home Life Insurance Building erected in Chicago
  • 1887 American Alexander Miles patents automatic door system
  • 1890 First steel frame building erected, skyscraper era begins
  • 1890s The War of the Currents ends; competitors merge, AC power wins
  • 1890s American Frank Sprague invents automatic elevator floor and speed controls
  • 1895 Frank Sprague sells company to Otis
  • 1898 Otis Brothers & Co acquire 14 more competitors
  • 1900 Schindler begins European expansion
  • 1900 The modern elevator era begins

Notice something about this timeline? Otis isn’t the only elevator company on it, and Americans weren’t the only ones innovating. While the Otis Brothers were rolling up the American elevator industry, a Swiss company named Schindler was expanding across Europe. 

But if there’s one thing that sells better than a good product, it’s a good product with a great story and awesome marketing. Guess who has the best story in elevators? Otis, of course. The Otis safety-in-a-day mythology, orbiting Elisha’s Otis’s 1854 Crystal Palace demonstration, is why some people think elevators were a race, and that Otis won it.

The reality is that Otis didn’t “win” elevators alone. The early elevator industry, like the early rail, shipping, aviation, and automotive industries, saw hundreds of companies winnowed down to a handful of market leaders.

By 2018, the legendary Otis commanded only 12% global market share, followed by Schindler with 11%, Finland’s Kone Oyj with 10%, Germany’s Thyssenkrupp AG with 9%, and Japan’s Hitachi with 7%. That means the top 5 companies command 49% of the $100+ billion market.

In time, there’s no reason to believe the self-driving market will be any different.

What about the elevator operators? 

The disappearance of elevator operators is often used as an example for what will happen to human drivers once self-driving cars become ubiquitous. But like Otis’ safety-in-a-day mythology, reality is rather different. All of the technologies necessary to fully automate new elevators existed by 1900, but operators were still necessary for legacy elevators that were decades from replacement. More importantly, a human operator was expected, both as a sign of perceived safety and as a symbol of luxury.

A New York City elevator operator strike in 1945 is often credited as the tipping point for elevator automation, but even that isn’t quite true. For passengers to trust elevators without operators, several additional (and relatively superficial) technologies were required: things like an alarm button, an emergency phone, open and close buttons, and calming background music. Retrofitting old elevators took years and replacing them with new ones took decades, and so it wasn’t until the 1970s that only a handful of elevator operators remained.

But as the market for vertical mobility continued to grow, so did the number of people employed to design, build and maintain them. Today, the elevator business is still growing, driven largely by service and upgrades to software and connectivity, which comprise 60% of the elevator market. The elevator business is still evolving, because at the intersection of transportation efficiency and passenger safety, there is no such thing as perfection, even for something everyone takes for granted.

So who won the elevator race?

One hundred years into the era of the modern elevator, there are a lot of winners: the five major companies who own 50% of the market; the hundreds of smaller manufacturers; and the  thousands of subcontractors and maintenance companies. But the biggest winner is us: passengers. Elevators unlocked vertical mobility, enabled urbanization, inverted real estate values, and changed the face of cities forever. Without elevators, the modern city as we know it wouldn’t exist. Except for those who think we need more exercise, there is no anti-elevator lobby. If we want to go up or down the old-fashioned way, we can. Elevators, like all the best inventions, are a choice, but they are so good at what they do, we use them by default.

The history of elevators reveals how difficult it is to develop and deploy complex technologies, even on a local level. It took decades of invention, innovation and consolidation — and the parallel evolution of electrical power, architecture, and material science — for elevators to reach a tipping point in early 20th century America. Even in a new nation willing to erect buildings specifically around a new technology, even though the technology “worked,” nothing happened overnight. Not their ubiquity. Not our trust. Not even the retirement of elevator operators.

Winner-take-all? Elevators aren’t even winner-take-most.

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