AKA Elisha Graves Otis
Birthplace: Halifax, VT
Location of death: Yonkers, NY
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Oakland Cemetery, Yonkers, NY
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Invented the safety elevator
Elisha Otis was the master mechanic at the Maize & Burns bed factory in Yonkers, New York in 1852, where he devised a mechanical box for lifting bed parts from the workshop's ground floor to its second floor. Elevators had been used in parts of the world since the third century BC, but had always carried great risk of injury or death if the supporting cable snapped. Otis's innovation was what he called an "Improvement in Hoisting Apparatus", a safety brake that prevented the box from falling, even if the lift chain snapped.
He attached heavy-duty sawtooth ratchet bars to the guard rails on all four sides of the box, and linked the elevator's lifting cable to a sturdy spring on top of the platform. In normal operation, tension from the spring kept the ratchet bars from touching the side walls beyond the elevator, but if the cable broke, the tension would be released -- and the ratchet bars would immediately snap into matching holes alongside the wall, locking the platform firmly in place and keeping it from falling.
When two businessmen inquired about purchasing his safety-hoist elevator, Otis rented manufacturing space and began producing his freight elevators. Business took off after an 1854 trade show where the inventor stood in one of his elevators at the second story level, and dramatically ordered a man with an axe to cut the elevator's rope. The platform fell about an inch and a half before the ratchets caught, and Otis emerged unharmed. Over the next three years he sold forty elevators, and in 1857 he sold the world's first safety elevator for passengers, installing it in New York City's famed five-story Haughwout Department Store.
Safe and efficient up-and-down transit made taller buildings feasible, leading to the development of the skyscraper and modern urban architecture. The company he founded, Otis Elevator, is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of United Technologies, and remains the world's leading manufacturer of elevators, escalators, and moving walkways.
Father: Stephen Otis (b. 1773, d. 1859)
Mother: Phoebe Glynn Otis (b. 1778, d. circa 1867)
Sister: Filey Otis Harris (b. 1799, d. 1850)
Sister: Laura Otis Carpenter (b. 1800, d. 1850)
Brother: Chandler Otis (b. 1803, d. 1854)
Brother: Samuel Alleyne Otis (b. 1805, d. 1889)
Brother: James Madison Otis (b. 1807, d. 1813)
Wife: Susan Houghton (b. 1811, m. 1834, d. 1842)
Son: Charles Rollin Otis (elevator executive, b. 1835, d. 1927)
Son: Norton Prentice Otis (elevator executive, b. 1840, d. 1905)
Wife: Elizabeth Otis (b. 1811, d. 1845, d. 1903)
Otis Elevator Founder (1853)
National Inventors Hall of Fame 1988
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