The American manufacturer and inventor Elisha Graves Otis (1811-1861) was one of the inventors of the modern elevator and founded a company for their manufacture.
Elisha Otis was born near Halifax, Vt., where his father was for many years a justice of the peace and a state legislator. He received a common education in his hometown and at the age of 19 moved to Troy, N.Y., where he went into the construction trade. Poor health caused him to turn to hauling goods between Troy and Brattleboro, Vt. In a pattern that he was to repeat several times in his life, he saved enough money to start his own operation, in this case a small gristmill.
About 1845 Otis was again forced by ill health to change jobs. He moved to Albany, N.Y., where he became a master mechanic in a bedstead factory. Eventually he opened a small machine shop in that city. Again he was forced to give it up and became a master mechanic in a factory in Bergen, N.J. His son, Charles, then just 15 years old, was so proficient at machine work that he was made an engineer with the same firm.
In 1852 the firm sent Otis to Yonkers, N.Y., to supervise the installation of machinery in a new factory, and there he made some improvements in the elevator with which he was working. He showed the improvements in New York and applied for a patent on the device. The elevator consisted of a platform which was raised by a rope between two vertical posts. On the inside of each post was a rack designed to catch two pawls set in the platform frame when the lifting stopped. In 1854 it was reported that "the pawls are prevented from bearing against the racks during the upwards movement of the frame, and much friction is obviated thereby, and if the rope should break, or be loosened from the driving shaft, or disconnected from the motive power accidentally, the platform will be sustained, and no injury or accident can possibly occur, as the weight is prevented from falling."
Scientific American called the device "excellent" and said that it was "much admired" in New York. Receiving several orders for elevators, Otis again set up his own shop and with the aid of his son began their manufacture. He continued to invent and patent other devices, but his elevator business grew only slowly and was still rather small when he died, a comparatively young man. His son carried on the firm. With the growth of cities and the introduction of the apartment house and the skyscraper in the years after the Civil War, Otis elevators came to lead the field.
There is no adequate biography of Otis. The importance of his work for the growth of American cities is examined in Carl W. Condit, American Building Art: The Nineteenth Century (1960). See also Leroy A. Peterson, Elisah Graves Otis, 1811-1861, and His Influence upon Vertical Transportation (1945). □