Considerations on the Elevator’s birth

The need to lift loads is inherent in human ingenuity. Practically, men have always had the need to lift materials, let’s think about the various temples and pyramids where it would have been impossible to move certain weights without the help of “machines”. But even in everyday life “simple machines” were used which were then conceptualized by Archimedes (287-212a.C.) To whom the phrase “give me a foothold, and I will move the Earth” 1 is attributed; for example, pulleys to lift water from wells or counterbalanced levers (shaduf) to move water from the Nile to the various channels.

In the 5a.c. the Roman architect Vitruvius also wrote a treatise “De architectura” 2 in which he meticulously describes the operating principle of the various simple or compound machines, giving them the names, we know today: pulleys, hoists, winches, etc.

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Obviously, apart from some lovers of extraterrestrials, the equipment used was created using the technologies available in the respective era. At the time of the Roman Empire, palaces, roads, amphitheaters were built (Colosseum 3 had about 80 hoists to raise beasts, gladiators, sets, etc.), bridges still standing using machines made of wood and soft iron and hemp ropes. The primary energy to move these machines was always given by humans or animals (see for example the donkey that moving inside a wheel operated the freight elevator still present in the abbey of Mont St. Michel on the French coast).

The first giant step that leads to the use of primary energies different from that given by man or animals was made by the French inventor Denis Papin. He structured the idea of using water transformed into steam to move a piston. This idea was already used in the past by various inventors, including Leonardo da Vinci, with his steam cannon which he himself says he took as an inspiration from Archimedes4.

As a Latin proverb says “Mater artium necessitas” or Necessity sharpens the wits, and therefore Captain Thomas Savery, a mining engineer, together with his partner Thomas Newcomen, perfects a steam pump to lift water from English mines subject to floods 5.

Coal, by burning, releases the energy needed by the water to become steam. We are at the dawn of the first industrial revolution which can have its momentum also thanks to inventions (no less fundamental) such as that of producing steel with the crucible steel method. Without this invention, the suitable material would not have been available to cope with the new powers brought into play by the steam engine. This motor officially made its appearance in 1764 thanks to James Watt6 who repeatedly improved Thomas Newcomen’s initial machine.

From this moment on, an escalation is triggered that will bring to a revolution. Each generation of steam machines allows to improve the technology, that made possible at the same time to extract the coal deeper and faster, which in turn is used to make the steam machines move, which in turn drive a series of pulleys that through belts of leather allow energy to be transported to automated factories. The steam engine allows to become independent from water courses to recover the energy needed to operate the various automatisms; the water mill starts to have much less importance, the steam engine can be more powerful and give energy in a constant way. However, coal must be transported and this is a cost that induces the various entrepreneurs to build new factories in the most logistically favorable places. Thus the first large industrial centers were born around the cities that have a river and / or sea port. The two great examples are London and New York.

Let’s go back to the proverb “Necessity sharpens the ingenuity” to meet the great demand for coal, mines must produce more and more and must therefore necessarily extend into depth. However, the material must be brought to the surface and the miners must also be brought to the depths. This need has given the greatest thrust to the evolution of technology linked to the vertical transport of things and people. We have the elevator that has to reach several hundred meters and several safety issues to address. One of the biggest problems was that the hemp ropes quickly frayed and broke, even the chains broke without warning. Thus it was that in 1834 Wilhelm August Julius Albert7 invents the wire ropes, with strands and wires wound in the same direction, ropes that will substitute textile rope in elevators only from the early 1900s.

Another fundamental invention for the safety of the miners was that of the safety devices that in Italy we call parachutes (thanks to Stigler) of which there is a French patent of 1847.8

Let’s go back to the big industrial cities: the need to concentrate factories near ports immediately creates the problem of saturation of horizontal spaces. The plots of land near the ports, unlike today, are worth gold and must be made to yield to the maximum. The concentration of large factories consequently creates exodus of people from the countryside to the cities and these people somewhere have to sleep, eat, have fun and be able to buy basic necessities.

We are in the 1850s and developing coastal cities vertically becomes indispensable and a great earning opportunity. The installation of elevators to transport people vertically becomes essential in new buildings that must have several floors. The lift therefore begins to be used also in civil buildings for the vertical people transportation. The first official use of an elevator deemed safe for the transport of people, it is reported in New York with the closed cabin elevators with worm gear driven by a steam engine9 installed in 1857 by Tuft Otis in the Grand hotel Fifth Avenue remained in operation until 1870. The first elevator installed by Elisha Otis in the 5-story Haughwout and Compay department store consisted of a wall less platform with a drum driven by belts from a steam engine10. This lift, due to the lack of cabin walls, was not appreciated by customers and was replaced after three years.

Elisha Otis must be recognized, through a blatant exhibition with great media prominence for the time, the ability to have shown the public at the 1854 New York Universal Exhibition that the elevator is a safe means11.

The technology of the time centered around steam engines made it possible to create two types of elevators: hydraulic elevators that use the pressure of the aqueduct and of tanks placed on the roofs of buildings to move pistons and drum elevators operated by a machine steam powered.

In 1857 electricity has already been discovered but not yet put into practice; in 1819 Hans Christian Ørsted, a Danish physicist and chemist, was the first to discover that a wire crossed by an electric current generates a magnetic field12, in 1821 Faraday discovered the fundamentals of electromagnetic rotation. His studies are carried out by André-Marie Ampère who enunciated the laws of electromagnetism, in the work published in 182613 followed closely by Georg Simon Ohm who enunciates Ohm’s law on electrical resistance14.

In the years around 1830 Faraday developed the first electromagnetic generator of electric current (dynamo and alternator) 15.

Joseph Henry perfects a particularly powerful electromagnet thus allowing the transmission of electrical energy over great distances16.

In 1860, the Italian Antonio Pacinotti built the first dynamo based on Faraday’s principles17.

It was only in 1880 that the German inventor Werner von Siemens, with his German firm Siemens & Halske, built the first electric lift for the industrial exhibition in Mannheim. But for the installation of the first elevators with an electric motor that drive a drum or a worm screw, it was necessary to wait until 188418.

The first lifts were therefore mechanical without the use of electricity and the commands were given by a person: the lift man.

The first hydraulic lifts had the advantage over the drum lifts of being able to be equipped with different reeving pulleys and therefore of being able to be used in tall buildings where with the cable system wound on a drum it could not possible to operate.

On the other hand, water is a strong oxidant and the materials used were not immune to oxidation, so these elevators needed a lot of maintenance.

Returning to the proverb “necessity sharpens ingenuity” always from mining engineers comes the latest invention that gives us the lift with friction pulley as we know it today.

In fact, in 1877 Friedrich Koepe transformed a drum machine into a friction hoist for a well 234 meters deep (i.e. the equivalent of an eighty-story building). Instead of using a drum on which the cable was wound and fixed, Koepe lays the cable on a pulley that simultaneously acts as a driving wheel. The cable runs along a formed groove and is pushed exclusively by friction. As in every era, sometimes those in charge do not know their treasures and Koepe had to patent the friction pulley by himself because his superiors did not believe in this innovation that in fact revolutionized the elevator sector18.

At the end of the 1800s there are series of events and innovations that in fact decreed the death of the hydraulic lift. In fact there is the first electrical distribution of alternating current in large cities which in America involves switching from direct current motors to alternating current. For various structures therefore the first reason to also change the elevators. In some large cities, fires develop which also destroy all the elevator installed. Hydraulic lift technology is subject to severe corrosion and requires a lot of maintenance. Electrically powered lifts with winch and traction pulley with wire ropes become the new standard that is practically preserved to this day.

During this period, Italy also contributed to the development of lift technology; We recall that in 1859 August Stigler found in Milan the company Officine Meccaniche Stigler, a company for the construction of electrical and hydraulic machinery, such as pumps, lifts and hoists. The first lift used by the company to transport people in Italy was installed in Rome in 1870 in the Costanzi hotel.

In 1894, August Stigler built one of the main attractions of the “Esposizioni Riunite” in Milan: a 40 meter high tower on which it was possible to climb to admire the view by means of a hydraulic lift with a capacity of 10 people. In 1898, the company passed to his son Augusto II Stigler, also an engineer who graduated from the Polytechnic of Milan, develops the first electric lift of the house which was followed by mass production: in 1910 about 10,000 Stigler lifts were in operation, while twenty years later 35,00019 were active.

The company then passed to Sergio Stigler, the grandson of Augusto Stigler, until 1947 when the company was bought by OTIS. At the time, the company had installed about 45,000 elevators around the world: from Rio de Janeiro to Seoul, from Buenos Aires to Tokyo, up to Bombay and Cairo.

Sergio Stigler continued to build lifts and in 1962 he became one of the partners of the new GEBAUER ITALIANA SPA (which later became COAM in 1981) together with Eng. Alex Kurt Gebauer, founder of AK GEBAUER in Zurich in 1981 and inventor of the motor for immersion hydraulic power units as well as various types of valves and pistons.

When you see the Stigler nameplate on some surviving lift in the future, perhaps with a cabin in lacquered honeycomb wood and etched glass, remember that this is not an old lift, perhaps to be changed, there is a lot of Italian history in there to be proud of; for those who have been in Milan for generations it is easy to have had some great-grandfather employed by Stigler who, in addition to lifts, also built funiculars, electric trolleys and vans, trolley buses, etc.

1 – Ubi consistam

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4 – Nouvelle maniere pour lever l’eau par la force du feu; testo consultabile anche su

5- History of the steam engine, from the second century before the Chrisian era to the time of the great Exhibition;… Robert Wallace 1852

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7 – Atti e rassegna tecnica della società ingegneri e architetti in torino – nuova serie- A. 15 – n. 10 – ottobre 1961 articolo dell’ing Italo Bertolini

8 – Elevator museum

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11 – Elevator museum

12 Volta and the History of Electricity, Pavia / Milano, Università degli Studi di Pavia / Editore Ulrico Hoepli, 2003, pp. 245-265.  Disponibile a questo link

13 Description d’un appareil électro-dynamique, Bachelier, Paris, 1826.

14 – Die galvanische Kette mathematisch bearbeitet

15 Experimental Researches in Electricity

16 – scientific writings of Joseph Henry 1880

17 – descrizione-di-una-macchinetta-elettro-magnetica 1912

18 – “A Cultural History of Vertical Transport” by Jeannot Simmen and Joseph Imorde Ernst & Sohn, 1994.

19 – Archivio storico Fondazione Fiera di Milano

20 – Archivi tessili Biella