Monday, January 5, 2015

Apple #696: Escalators

I have had another request!  Daily Apple reader Jamarcus wants to know when escalators were invented.  That sort of question usually gets a rather uninteresting answer, like, a year.  So I'll try to give you some more engaging information about escalators.

I first of all want to note that Arthur Weasley calls them "escapators" (pronounced by Jim Dale as ESS-keh-pah-tors").


  • In the mid-1800s, the elevator had already been invented by Elisha Otis (you'll notice the name OTIS on the outer edge of most elevator cars), though Otis was still working in the finer points to make elevators suitable for public use.

The Otis name on an escalator step.  Note how the slats, or cleats, with one step inter-align with the cleats of the next step, like the way you lace your fingers together.  This is an innovation that took escalator inventors a while to come up with.
(Photo from Elevator History)

  • In 1859, inventor Nathan Ames from Michigan filed a patent with drawings and descriptions of his Revolving Stairs, which is generally considered the first escalator.  However, it never really existed in real life; he was never able to get the thing built before he died a year later.  The design was problematic anyway in that it required passengers to jump onto the base and jump off again at the top step.  

Nathan Ames' Revolving Stairs. The drawing at the lower left gives you the best indication of how people would have to jump on & off the thing. Note also how the steps jut out at fixed right angles from top to bottom.
(Drawing from Ames' patent sourced from Elevator History)

For comparison's sake, here's a drawing of how escalators work today. The steps are individual flat platforms, connected by wheels to the continuous chain. The handrail is a relatively flexible rubber that circulates on its own pulley system above the moving steps.
(Diagram from How Products Are Made)

Here's another diagram, this one from 1939, which may actually be more helpful.
(Diagram from SurrenderDorothy's Etsy page)

  • It took almost another 40 years before someone was able to take a design for moving stairs and make them work in real life.  In 1896, Jesse W. Reno introduced his first working escalator, which he called the Reno Inclined Elevator.  This was a 6-foot conveyor belt that was set on a 25 degree incline and had grooved wooden slats on rubber cleats.  It was installed at Coney Island and carried people up to the Old Iron Pier at a speed of 1-1/2 miles per hour.
    • Today's escalators move at about 1-2 feet/second.  1-1/2 mph is about 2.2 feet/second. So Reno's early conveyor belt escalator was actually a little faster than our escalators today.
  • Reno's Coney Island Inclined Elevator was only in operation there for 2 weeks. And it was actually intended as a ride in itself.  It was not really supposed to be a tool to get you someplace else.
  • Two years later, Harrods of London installed a Reno Inclined Elevator, and they paid a man to stand at the top of the escalator and offer brandy to any customer who felt faint after the experience.  Too bad Harrods doesn't offer brandy at the end of their escalators anymore. (See an image of an escalator in Harrods in 1911.)

Here's what one escalator in Harrods looks like today.  A bit fancier than the early Reno Inclined Elevator.
(Photo from 2011 from TripAdvisor)

  • At about the same time, another guy named George Wheeler filed a patent for a moving stairway, which featured the innovation of flat steps but it also had a moving handrail.  Because of the handrail, people had to get on & off from the side.
  • Yet another inventor, this one named Charles Seeberger, started his path to invention by buying the patent for Wheeler's moving stairway.  Wheeler then took a job at Otis Elevator Company, and he refined Wheeler's design, making the first version in which the steps moved.
  • Seeberger also came up with the word "escalator," which is a combination of "elevator" and "scala" which is Latin for steps.
  • Up to this point, all these working moving stairways were demonstration versions, on display at places like the Chicago and Paris Exhibitions. 
  • But Jesse Reno, who was the first one to make an actual moving stairway at Coney Island, wasn't done. He founded Reno Electric Stairways and Conveyors in 1902, and he made further crucial alterations to the design of the escalator.  The biggest improvement was making a cleat-type moving stairway, and he put the thing together so that it actually worked.  This was installed in 1900 in an elevated rail station in New York City.  So it could be argued that Reno's was the first working escalator that people used for its intended purpose.
    •  Other escalators of Reno's were installed in lots of cities.  Some of them were still in use in subway stations in Boston and London as late as the 1980s.  You'd know a Reno escalator by the wooden slats used for the stair treads and risers.
  • But the same year, the Otis Elevator Company installed their first escalator in a Gimbel's department store in Philadelphia. So there was pretty immediate and close competition between Reno and Otis.
  • About a decade later, in 1911, Elisha Otis's elevator company bought all of Reno's stuff and his escalators became part of the elevator company.  After that, escalators were made by Otis for a long time, until they lost the patents and the trademarks.

I don't know when this image was made, but please note the escalator operator at the base. 
(Image from J Bashford & Associates)

Up & down escalators in the London Underground at Earl's Court Station, circa 1911-1915.
(Photo from the London Transport Museum, sourced from IanVisits)

A wooden escalator, from some time in the 1920s or 1930s, still in use at Macy's in Herald Square, NYC. Many of the original wooden treads have had to be replaced over the years.
(Photo from Elevator World)

  • Mitsubishi Electric got into the escalator business in the 1930s. They are now the primary manufacturer of escalators worldwide.


  • Here's one surprising fact for you: escalators, as long as they are moving, are SAFER than standard stairways. The number one hazard of stairs is tripping and falling, which doesn't happen very often at all on escalators.
  • However, if the escalator is not working and you have to walk up it while it's standing still, it is LESS SAFE than a traditional stairway. This is because the steps on an escalator are higher than on a stairway, but people tend not to expect that, so they don't lift their legs high enough, or it's simply harder to walk up or down the higher steps, so they tend to trip more often on a stopped escalator.
  • Finally, as is the case in pretty much any mode of transport, slower traffic keeps to the right, and people pass on the left. So if you're going to stand on an escalator, move to the right so that people walking up it can go past you on the left.

(Image from Vow. Move. Live.)

Mitsubishi Electric, History of the Escalator, Story Behind Inventors and Inventions, Escalator
The Great Idea Finder, Escalator
Engines of Our Ingenuity, No. 250: Magic Stairways
Elevator History, The History of Escalators
Neatorama, Inventions for Lazy People 
Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation, Escalator Safety

1 comment:

If you're a spammer, there's no point posting a comment. It will automatically get filtered out or deleted. Comments from real people, however, are always very welcome!