Wednesday 13 August 2014

What can we learn from the career of Elisha Otis?

The vertical transportation industry would not be what it is today without Elisha Graves Otis. Born in 1811 the youngest of six children to Stephen Otis and Phoebe Glynn in Halifax, Vermont. He is acknowledged as the creator of the industry because of his invention of the elevator ‘brake’ (safety gear) that prevented elevators from falling if the hoisting cable failed. This invention made high-rise buildings a practical reality and his sons, Charles and Norton, went on to build a company that became a global giant.

Early career
His career was very varied. He worked as a wagon driver, carpenter and owned a gristmill that he converted to a sawmill. He also worked as a builder of wagons and carriages and as a doll maker for Otis Tingely.

Elisha was involved in many business ventures both as an employee and business owner and was dogged by uncertainty, financial insecurity and ill health and yet persisted with his inventions and tinkering.

Problems present opportunities
While working for Otis Tingely in Albany, New York he struggled to meet the daily quota of making twelve dolls per day. His response was to invent and patent a mechanical doll turner that enabled him to produce dolls four times faster - he could produce 50 per day. He was rewarded with a $500 bonus.

Failure was his best teacher
It was his failure at running his own sawmill due to an inability to attract enough customers that ultimately prepared him to capitalise on his greatest opportunity with the elevator brake. 

It’s never too late to make your mark
Elisha was 40 years old when he created the elevator brake while overseeing the conversion of a sawmill to a bedstead factory. He was clearing up debris by hand and wondering how to move debris to the upper levels of the factory. Hoisting platforms existed but were unreliable – is response was to invent the “safety elevator” with the elevator ‘brake’. He did not think enough of it to patent the invention initially. The elevator ‘brake’ was used successfully in the factory until the bedstead business failed.

Delight and amaze your customers
Many of the businesses that Elisha had been involved with had failed to attract enough customers. After the bedstead company failed he focused on his elevator brake invention and founded Union Elevator Works in 1852. There were no orders for his invention. His theatrical demonstration of the elevator brake at the 1854 New York World's Fair complete with axe man cutting the hoisting rope was a masterful act of showmanship. When the rope was cut the platform fell only a few inches because of the elevator brake / safety gear. This demonstration led to continuous orders from customers and laid the foundations for the vertical transportation industry.  After the World’s Fair Elisha changed the name of his company to The Otis Elevator Company.

Leave a legacy
Charles and Norton built on their father’s achievements after his death from diphtheria in 1861 and established the company as a global giant. They installed an elevator in Paris's Eiffel Tower in 1889 and another in the Washington Monument the following year. In 1913, the Otis Company installed an elevator inside the 60-storey Woolworth Building in New York City, at that time the world's tallest building.

What have we learned? With grit and determination driven by need we can succeed to break down social boundaries and perceptions.  

Dunbar and Boardman is the lift, escalator and access equipment consultancy. Do you have a current or planned project that includes elevators? We would be happy to discuss any such requirements and how we may be able to assist. Give us a call on T +44 (0) 20 7739 5093 or send us an email via to start the conversation. We look forward to hearing from you.


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