Elisha Graves Otis was born here on August 3, 1811, the youngest of six children. He mastered woodworking and engineering skills on the family farm, and at 19 started bouncing between New York and Vermont, dabbling in carpentry, operating his own gristmill, running a freight-hauling business and manufacturing high-end carriages. In 1845 he settled in New York with his second wife (his first had died in 1842) and two young sons, Charles and Norton, and was eventually hired by a bedstead manufacturing company to oversee the installation of all machinery in its new factory. To raise heavy equipment and lumber from floor to floor, Otis erected a Waterman-type hoist. Nothing fancy or unique at first. But he knew these lifts were inherently dangerous—ropes could break, sending workers plummeting to their deaths—so Otis jerry-built vertical safety brakes using a wagon spring, rope and ratcheted guide rails for the hoist platform. In 1852 he built two “safety hoisters” for his employer, Benjamin Newhouse, and a third for a neighboring company impressed with the concept.
And then on April 8, 1861, 49-year-old Elisha Otis died of diphtheria, leaving the company in the hands of his two sons. Fortunately, they proved even more adept at business than their father. Charles and Norton weathered the economic slump during the Civil War and oversaw exponential growth in its aftermath.
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I’d seen that name before, of course; indeed, I had stepped over it several times a day going in and out of my apartment building’s elevator. But I’d never thought about the person behind the company or, frankly, the history of elevators. To me they seemed like little more than a nifty convenience. And Otis, I knew, hadn’t even invented the elevator. European castles and monasteries atop steep mountains used pulleys and large rope-drawn baskets big enough to hold a person as far back as the medieval period, and Henry Waterman constructed an elevator-like mechanism in 1850, although its intended passengers were barrels and other bulky goods. Then Elisha Otis came along and, I learned, did more than just improve the design: He transformed the world.
Every time you visit a building and are able to travel effortlessly from floor to floor by using an elevator, you can silently offer your gratitude to a man by the name of Elisha Graves Otis. Otis started his life on a farm in 1811 in Halifax, Vermont. He was the youngest sibling of six children.