Cover image for Otis : giving rise to the modern city
Otis : giving rise to the modern city
Goodwin, Jason, 1964-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Chicago : Ivan R. Dee, [2001]

Physical Description:
xv, 286 pages, 48 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
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HD9715.9.E434 O854 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Elisha Graves Otis invented the safe elevator almost by accident. In doing so he made possible the construction of the skyscraper and laid the technical foundation for dynamic urban centers around the world.

Author Notes

Jason Goodwin, writes regularly for the New York Times and Conde Nast Traveler. He lives in Cambridge, England

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

The skyscraper, that most durable symbol of modernity, would not have been possible without the elevator, and the elevator as we have come to know it is largely the product of the company that Elisha Otis founded in the 1850s. The history of that company is detailed in New York Times journalist Goodwin's (On Foot to the Golden Horn) well-paced book, which weaves business, technological and social history into a seamless and entertaining narrative. Though various sorts of elevators had been in use for many years, it was Elisha Otis's invention of an automatic safety device in the years before the Civil War that made them practical and dependable. Under the more business-savvy leadership of Elisha's son, Charles, the company was able to capitalize on the go-go postwar economy to become dominant in the field, with an unmatched reputation for safety and craftsmanship. Readers of today's business pages will no doubt find much familiar in Goodwin's racy account of the fiercely competitive, volatile and technology-driven economy of the late 19th century, with its dizzying cycles of boom and bust. But the orgy of upward building that took place in the cities of America not to mention the Eiffel Tower meant that installing and maintaining elevators was never a business that was down for long. Familiar, too, is the attention that Otis's sometimes not entirely savory methods of preserving dominance in its field attracted from turn of the century trustbusters. Goodwin does not cover up some practices that, endemic at the time, were hardly proud moments. But besides being the history of one company, Goodwin's book (which includes 48 pages of b&w illustrations) is also a thumbnail history of American business, with its mistakes, sins and undeniable triumphs. (Sept.) Forecast: With the success of Colson Whitehead's elevator novel The Intuitionist, there should be a set of curious readers waiting for a book like this. But if fans of urban history also find the book, strong word-of-mouth sales should be a lock. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

The name Otis has become synonymous with vertical transport by elevator. Goodwin emphasizes the continuous growth and reinventions of one company, begun by Elisha Otis and his brother in the middle of the 19th century, which has survived wars, economic recessions, ownership struggles, executive infighting, and numerous competitors to become a global enterprise. In 1857 the first commercial passenger elevator was installed at a department store in New York City. With a sure safety mechanism and run by its own steam engine, the operation was noisy and people did not trust it. However, by the late 19th century, especially in Europe, the elevator transformed society nearly overnight. Before then, the wealthy shop owner lived above the shop, and all the servants and other laborers walked up flights of stairs to the higher floors. The elevator eliminated this mixing of classes in the same building, for the wealthy now wanted the flats with views. Laborers moved to suburbs. Taller buildings brought new challenges, and Otis evolved to meet the demands. The 48 pages of photographs and illustrations, footnotes, and index add to its reference value. General readers; two-year technical program students. F. Potter formerly, University of California, Irvine



Chapter One Elisha Otis On a late May day in 1854 a man in a black overcoat and stovepipe hat stepped off the Thomas E. Hulse, a small paddlewheeler with a single upright stack, onto the wooden town dock at Yonkers, New York. Down by the water's edge, a railroad gang was laying the new Hudson River Railroad, soon to link Yonkers to New York City. Downstream on the other side of the tracks, the parish cemetery ran off into the distance, with the steep escarpment of Yonkers Heights rising to the eastern horizon. Remnants of the old Dutch farm town were still to be seen--old gabled farmhouses nestled among clumps of trees--but paved streets had come to replace dirt lanes and cart tracks, and clapboard houses were filling in the pastures cleared by the early Dutch settlers. The waterfront had changed too, the river bank now crenellated with landings and wharves, where red brick and rusty tin announced the presence of low factory buildings and their cluttered yards. Wherries and sailbarges hunkered on the water. In the distance to the south lay Manhattan's wooded hills.     Alfred Wilde sniffed the air appreciatively. He liked the bitter seacoal stench he knew so well. He tipped a penny to one of the boys perching on the dockside railings, and followed him along the waterfront. The boy pointed out the bedstead factory that Wilde had come here to visit, took his penny and ran off.     The factory was a plain three-story brick building with a tin roof already turning to rust, standing on a jetty ringed by old oak pilings. A drawing made a few years later shows it jammed between the river and the railroad--an unrivaled position for the time. On one side of the building stands a boiler house with a 40-foot chimney; in front runs a gap-toothed picket fence that divides the factory yard from the railroad lines. The artist's impression, though, is one of life and bustle: the factory chimney belches soot, in the background a paddle-wheel steamer is forging upriver, a masted schooner is loading from the jetty, a two-horse dray is crossing the yard, and a sawyer has his bench set up in the doorway. The weather is fine, and a man is lounging on the outside staircase, smoking a cigar.     But no smoke was pouring from the chimney on the day Wilde called, and at first glance the building appeared to be empty. A mechanic himself, Wilde knew only too well the false starts and phantom opportunities that threatened anyone entering industry in those days. America was still a young country, after all. New York, with half a million inhabitants, was the biggest city in a country of a mere 12 million people--4 million of them black slaves in the South. Boston was already a half-Irish city, but while Native Americans had not yet disappeared, the huddled masses of Europe had not yet come, and the United States was still essentially a white, Protestant preserve. The vast majority of Americans in the 1850s lived on the land, slaughtered their own livestock, made most of their own clothes and traded their surplus crops for a colorful array of privately issued banknotes.     But in this quiet, rural world men like Alfred Wilde were stirring up a second revolution. Their cotton mills--like those that Wilde ran at Cohoes upstate--were the first big industrial ventures to establish a beachhead in the country, along lines initially laid down ha England, where the Industrial Revolution had begun. Where cotton manufacture led, other enterprises were trying to follow. America was full of inventive men trying uncharted markets.     Wilde made his way up the riverbank and crossed a yard to the shop door. He saw a small three-horsepower engine and heard the hiss of steam from its boiler. A young machinist stooped over an old lathe. A couple of oil cans stood on a work bench to one side, a desk on the other. Plates of iron and iron rods were stacked against the walls. A heap of coal lay ha its bin. The ground was strewn with wood shavings and slag that had spilled from the ashcan as it was carried outside. Everything, in fact, was just as Wilde had supposed it would be, apart from a small cannon lying in its wooden cradle near the door, like a relic from another revolution altogether.     The man who rented the shop was one Elisha Otis, and if Wilde was initially disappointed to learn that Otis senior was away, he soon found the young man minding the machinery perfectly capable of discussing his needs. Some 67 years later, that young man could still recall the visit, at the end of which Wilde left for Cohoes with some rough-sketched diagrams of an elevator suitable for hoisting freight, and Charles Otis kissed the Union Elevator and General Machine Works Co.'s first unsolicited order for a No 2 Hoist Machine, value $300.     The power of advertising had lured Wilde to Yonkers. Earlier that month he had witnessed an interesting exhibition at the New York World's Fair. This had been a splendid occasion, as everyone agreed--managed by P. T. Barnum, the impresario, funded by the New York Chamber of Commerce and modeled on the first World's Fair held in London two years earlier. On a site now occupied by Bryant Park, west of the city reservoir on 42nd Street, the committee had erected a huge pavilion of wrought iron and glass to display and market some of the new wonders of American invention.     When the Fair first opened, in 1853, some 50,000 people streamed through the gate at 20 cents a head and made their way slowly along the enormous aisles to the equestrian statue of George Washington that formed the Fair's centerpiece. But attendance dropped gradually, and in 1854 Barnum had revamped the displays, boldly replacing Washington and his horse with Elisha Otis and his hoist.     The ironic significance of replacing horse with hoist was largely lost on contemporaries, of course. Six feet tall without his top hat, Elisha Otis hourly stepped into the shaft and onto the open platform of his machine. Put into gear, the platform lurched skyward; a drum squealed, a rope squeaked, wheels rattled, and ha the midst of this din, at a rate of about 12 feet a minute, Otis was winched to the top of the shaft.     The New York Recorder's official artist, who had been idling all morning beneath the palms, set busily to work with his block and pencil, on a drawing which would be reproduced thousands of times and come to decorate Otis offices around the world, illustrating an event that has long since eclipsed the bigger show it was a part of. It wasn't Otis going up that dazzled the crowd--it was Otis not coming down with a crash after he slashed the hoisting rope with a saber. "All safe, gentlemen," he announced, as the brakes kicked in. "All safe."     Barnum paid Otis $100 for this stunt and apparatus. Elisha was not too proud to take the money from the man who had given the world the Bearded Lady, the Feejee Mermaid and the man who dived into a teacup from a circus roof. And wisely so. Mr. Wilde of the Cohoes Cotton Mills was in the audience, together with representatives of Johnson, Cox and Fuller, of Spuyten Duyvil; a visiting businessman from Charleston, South Carolina; a Boston manufacturer of linseed oil; even a contractor for the U.S. Assay Office building on Wall Street--one of the very first buildings to be erected using wrought-iron floor beams, and so a precursor of the skyscraper. All of these men watched Otis' exhibition with interest, and were sufficiently impressed to have placed orders with Otis' Union Works by the end of the year.     For when Otis had severed the hoisting rope with his saber, the lift had fallen only a few inches, then stopped with a jolt. The mechanism was simple, it was automatic, and it promised to make the hoist safe for the first time in 2,000 years. By executing this stunt, before a gasping crowd, Otis had heralded the birth of the elevator industry.     Hoists and lifts and pulleys were not a new idea. From early times men had sought ways to raise and lower heavy loads. Massive stones had been maneuvered to raise the largest structure of the ancient world, the monumental pyramid of Cheops at Giza, Egypt, to a height of 512 feet. Archimedes, the father of mechanics, who flourished around 236 B.C., reportedly employed ropes and pulleys, and devised a machine in which the hoisting ropes were coiled on a winding drum by a capstan and levers. In one version of the machine, the capstan was turned by men walking inside it--just as little dogs, in the medieval world, turned spits over a fire, and donkeys, in our own time, were used to raise and lower buckets in a well. In the turbulent centuries that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire in Europe, the so-called Dark Ages, Christian monasteries shone as beacons of light and learning amid the gloom; but for protection they often retreated to inaccessible mountain tops, and well into the 20th century both goods and visitors approached monasteries in Greece and Syria by means of a roped hoist, drawn up by a capstan.     Already in Roman times, engineers seem to have hit on the idea of enclosing the hoisting platform within a shaft to prevent its swinging wildly from side to side. Hoistways "have been found in the ruins of the palaces of Roman Emperors" (Encyclopedia Britannica 1939). The Roman Coliseum was completed in 80 A.D., and to this day the visitor may inspect the elevator alcoves--something short of an enclosed shaft--which could raise groups of gladiators, or packs of wild animals, straight into the arena overhead.     There is no evidence of the use of counterweights, however, before 1670, when an anonymous reporter recorded a machine installed in Turin, Italy, that could raise and lower a single person enclosed in a cage by means of a crank and a counterweight. A similar contraption, which traveled in a three-foot niche in the wall, was installed in the home of one Edward Weigal of Jena in Germany two years later. Nobody knows why these early passenger elevators were installed, but certainly the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa had three put into various places in the year of her death, when she had grown very fat and too weak to handle stairs. In one, which she had installed in the Capuchin Church in Vienna in order to visit the coffin of her late husband, she was reportedly stuck on November 2, 1780, an early--perhaps the very first--incident of what elevator people nowadays call an STK in elv . Among the great, the desire for secrecy was as much a spur to elevator development as obesity: Andreas Gaertner, a mechanic of Breslau in Germany, is supposed to have invented the device by which tables groaning with food could be winched through the floor of a private room, thereby dispensing with servants and their eavesdropping. A similar contraption was at work in Moscow in 1814, more for show than secrecy. Presumably only the central portion of the dining table descended, like a sort of vertical lazy susan; otherwise the dinner guests would have had to untuck their legs from under the table, and risk sliding off their seats through the well into the kitchen below.     Not until 1830 was a fixed hoist put to industrial use, when an English cotton mill, possibly steam-powered, was equipped with a pulley and an endless rope for raising bales of cotton. The Industrial Revolution, which had begun in England at least as early as the early 1800s, spurred further applications, and by 1835 a machine known as the teagle was installed, driven off the central steam engine by a belt, controlled by a hand rope, and operating in an enclosed hoistway. In the same year a more sophisticated version of the twin-bucket well was inaugurated, the so-called rising cupboard, described as an arrangement of "two cupboards which balance each other and are attached by cords, fastened to staples in the exterior surfaces of the tops and bottoms of the cupboards; while the cords run on two cast-iron wheels."     All these advances were convenient, but from ancient Egypt to modern Europe the mechanical hoist was scarcely an essential. Labor had always been abundant and cheap. After the pyramids, the tallest buildings in the world were the great medieval cathedrals; their spires were not in daily use, and no one had ever suggested the need for hoists and hoistways in them. Nor did it seem that the pattern would change in the New World either. In 1841, New York City raised its own gothic spire to 284 feet, and Trinity Church remained the highest structure in New York for 52 years.     The growth of industry in America seemed, at first glance, like a rerun of the Industrial Revolution that had swept Britain 40 years earlier. It produced the same red brick factories, the nondescript workers' housing spreading across the fields, the soot and grime, and the same poetic disaffection. To many contemporaries, the blossoming of American industry seemed spurred by the same Anglo-Saxon genius for invention. But the pattern of American industrialization was different in one crucial respect, as we shall see.     Elisha Otis was born in 1811 in the hamlet of Halifax, Vermont. Like most Americans of his generation, he grew up on a farm--set in a lush hill country whose towns were the size of villages and whose villages have sometime since vanished from the map. Vermont's entire population could have found elbow room in a modern city block.     Elisha was a reluctant farmboy. Planting and reaping meant work by rote, and he found the cycle of the seasons monotonous. Machinery, by contrast, was unpredictable and lively, and lent itself to improvement. He hung about the village blacksmith's shop, tinkered with whatever farm machinery he could lay hands on, and in 1829, at 19 years old, set out with his father's blessing to take up a job in Troy, New York.     All along the web of waterways between Albany and New York City, hundreds of general mechanics were driving the American Industrial Revolution. They kept close to running water, which provided the power to turn machines and the means to float their products off to market--down the Hudson, up the Erie Canal--and their machine shops were the laboratories of the new age. As they spread, so they began to alter the colonial pattern of sturdy independent yeomen and their farms. The fur traders' outposts had been gobbled up by brisk little commercial communities turning out iron, cloth, flour and a few other simple necessities. Most "manufactories" were still small-scale affairs, run as wet-weather alternatives on family farms; but it was only another 20 years or so before America came to grips with steam and mass-production, before American weapons, mechanical harvesters and specialized machine tools were to provide a spectacle at the World's Fair.     Elisha, in heading for Troy, moved as the United States was moving, from country to town, from agriculture to industry, from cash to credit, and from tradition to invention. He dreamed up new ways to harness the power of a turning wheel. He fitted out--for richer men--entire factories two, even three stories high, in which articles descended from floor to floor in an ever increasing state of finish and perfection, "never known," as his son recalled, "to have to alter, remodel or rebuild the machine after it was once constructed and put to use."     When one business folded, he started another. If a machine was too slow, he knew it right away, and he was not by nature a patient man. He was no sooner thinking of a thing than he was clambering over it, half-built, up to his elbows in axle grease. He was, to be sure, a stern and righteous churchman, and his Puritan God gave him a furious sense of imperfection. Almost everything he saw could be done better--faster, cheaper, more accurately--and he went at it with the energy of a man possessed.     It was a survivor's instinct that drove him from task to task and place to place. Industry presented a long and rolling frontier, ranged by men like Otis. Like the other American frontier, this one had to be strictly watched; and it needed a wakeful man, self-reliant and determined, to maintain any sort of position on it for long. For every shallow settler's grave, every smoking farmstead in the West, the East could show you a bankrupt who had failed to keep up with the progress of industrial development. One of Elisha's most ruinous ventures was the machine shop he built and equipped on the banks of Patroon's Creek, shortly before the city of Albany diverted all the creek's water to its drinking supply. But a man of Elisha Otis' skill and inventiveness was unlikely to be idle very long.     Next he started to manufacture carts, entered haulage. Finally he was rescued by the offer of a job in a bedstead factory. To his employers' delight, he devised an automated lathe that turned out bedstead rails four times faster than a man could make them. The factory failed for all that, but when one of the partners, Mr. Maize, moved the concern to a better location, close to the markets in Bergen, New Jersey, he brought Otis with him to install the turning machines, and kept him on as master mechanic. In the winter of 1851-52, Maize entered into a partnership with Barnes and Newhouse in order to shift his operations once again, to Yonkers, where Newhouse had a sawmill on the Hudson he was anxious to improve. With Maize's experience, Barnes' capital and Newhouse's property, the sawmill was replaced with the bedstead factory that Alfred Wilde saw standing idle by the Hudson a few years later. Elisha Otis moved to Yonkers with his family to superintend the organization of the factory and to install the necessary machinery, as he had done before.     The difference between industrial development in America and Europe was partly a matter of attitude. Americans, as Alexis de Tocqueville had observed, were not like Europeans, and above all they had no peasantry. The crudest American log cabin, he recorded, sheltered men of independent habits, who read the newspapers, discussed public and foreign affairs and intended to do well for themselves. Labor in America possessed a kind of dignity which the slum dwellers of the Old World could scarcely dream of.     The roots of this distinction were historical and economic. Population was abundant in the Old World, where millions of agricultural workers were drafted into the industrial cities, and their labor was cheap. For hundreds of years, European notions of value had been grounded in property. Land was relatively scarce, and as a form of wealth it passed down generally unchanged from one generation to the next. In the New World, conversely, land was abundant. It was workers who were scarce--especially in the North--and their wages were correspondingly high. The relative shortage of working men had a stimulating effect on the progress of U.S. industries, and influenced its direction.     The labor squeeze certainly fed into Elisha Otis' thinking about factory organization. Partly for the sake of speed, and partly to remove a burden from the shoulders of a well-paid workforce whose time could be better spent elsewhere, Otis turned his attention to making a hoist to move heavy lumber. Power-driven hoists were already being used elsewhere--indeed, Newhouse, Otis' employer, had a furniture factory on Hudson Street in New York City with a hoist that Otis must have examined. Hecker's Mill on Cherry Street had one made by Henry Waterman, a New York mechanic ("a very crude affair operating between two floors ..."); and the Boston firm of George H. Fox and Co. was already shipping freight elevators to various parts of the country. By 1852, Fox's elevators used wire rope, which was less liable to break than hemp. In the event of a disaster the operator of the lift was expected to throw a lever to brake the car, via a rotating pinion under the platform that connected to the rack on the guide beams. As a safety measure it was not very effective, since it depended entirely on the quick wits of the man in the car.     The lift that Otis constructed in his machine shop on site and installed in the bedstead factory followed existing patterns--a platform set between vertical guide rails and raised and lowered on a rope wound around an overhead drum, the drum turned by belting that looped across the factory floor to the central, continuously turning steam engine. The difference was the automatic safety device that Otis devised and coupled to his machine, which was to take him to the World's Fair two years later.     Like most great inventions, it was simple. Hoists were intrinsically dangerous in a world where all machinery was dangerous, but the most serious cause of accidents was a fraying rope, an overloaded platform or the failure of the belt that connected the drum to the factory's central steam engine, which could send the car or platform into free fall. What Otis first did was to notch the hardwood guide-rails which prevented the car from swinging out of line. Wooden guide-rails were surprisingly strong, often made of oak that set like iron, and they were not abandoned in the industry until the beginning of the 20th century. Otis then took a flat-leaf spring--a cart spring, in fact--and fixed it to the roof of the car, connecting it to the hoisting rope so that tension on the rope would draw the spring up, and draw its two ends in. Only if the rope broke, or slipped, was the tension released, and with that the spring would automatically flatten itself against the roof of the cab. Shoes on either end of the spring would then be rammed home into the notches carved on the guide rails, and the cab brought to an abrupt halt.     At first sight it seems incredible that Otis did not seek a patent on his safety right away. Patents were a mechanic's lifeblood--so many were registered in the second half of the 19th century that one patent officer is said to have resigned in the belief that he had registered everything that could possibly be invented. The strict patent laws of the United States gave inventors proper protection, and this was an enormous spur to human ingenuity. Patents could draw an industrial bottleneck into a man's pocket, a process Elisha well understood. (Continues...) Excerpted from OTIS by Jason Goodwin. Copyright © 2001 by United Technologies Corporation. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Prologuep. xi
Part 1 Elisha Otisp. 5
Competitionp. 21
Hydraulicsp. 37
Swansongp. 52
Abroadp. 63
The Hidden Handp. 72
Otis Elevator Incorporatedp. 88
The Otis Elevator Industryp. 101
Abroad Againp. 109
The Indicator Yearsp. 117
The Search for Controlp. 126
The Great Depressionp. 134
Servicep. 140
Part 2 Internationalp. 153
World War IIp. 165
Postwar Americap. 168
Postwar Europep. 189
Percy Douglas Tours the Worldp. 195
The American Dreamp. 204
Breaking the Moldp. 213
Breakawayp. 235
The Management Revolutionp. 247
Takeoverp. 259
Epiloguep. 264
Appendixp. 273
Indexp. 280