History of the escalator

Sure, the 19th-century invention transformed shopping. But it also revolutionized how we think about the built environment

Commuters ride up escalators at the Dupont Circle Metro Station in Washington, D.C. (Jlặng Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Great technological developments create a universe. The invention of the escalator was, literally, ground-breaking. It expanded our concept of space & time—and, accordingly, redefined the possibilities for commerce.

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For those within the intellectual property system, the escalator is famous for its association with “trademark genericide.” Genericide occurs when trademarks become so famous that they cease to identify the source of goods or services in the minds of consumers và instead become names for the goods themselves. “Escalator” is right up there with “aspirin,” “cellophane,” & “kitty litter” as an example of a brvà that morphed inlớn its product. And it’s true that the intellectual property story of the escalator is, in part, how Charles Seeberger’s brvà of moving staircases grew khổng lồ symbolize the thing itself. But the larger story is about the cultural phenomenon, an invention that transformed the way we interact with the world. How people move. How sales are made. How the built world is constructed.

Before the escalator was invented, commerce and transportation were largely one-dimensional. Stairs & elevators were for the committed & purposeful, their limitations constraining vertical expansion, above sầu & below ground. Stairs require patience and effort. Elevators have sầu a unique, precise, and tightly constrained mission. The invention of the escalator changed everything: suddenly, a constant flow of people could asckết thúc into the air, or descover to lớn the depths. The escalator modified architecture itself, creating fluid transitions into spaces above & below. Now, in commerce và transportation, neither the sky nor the ground would be the limit.

Nathan Ames" "Revolving Stairs," patented August 9, 1859 (U.S. Patent 25,076)

The first conceptual articulation of an escalator was “An Improvement in Stairs,” described in an 1859 U.S. patent issued to Nathan Ames. Ames was an inventor with several patents, including a railroad switch, a printing press, & a combination knife, fork, & spoon. Ames’ patent made clayên over an endless belt of steps revolving around three mechanical wheels that could be powered by hvà, weights, or steam. This version of the moving stairway didn’t gain much momentum, however, & was never built.

As the 20th century drew near, urbanization transformed society, and the development of the escalator was inextricably connected with the new way that people were living & working. Architecture responded khổng lồ increasing populations in cities through the development of skyscrapers, department stores, & urban planning. Mass transit facilitated movement via electric streetcars, elevated trains, & the promise of subway systems. Revolutions in printing và photography heralded an explosion of advertising & new ways lớn sell goods.

"Lumãng cầu Park," Coney Islvà, by Eugen Wemlinger, 1909. The mechanical escalator took people to lớn the top of the Helter Skelter, where an attendant handed out a small mat that would facilitate the downward slide. (Brooklyn Museum)

These cultural and economic developments coincided with the most important technological improvement in the moving staircase: the use of a linear belt, invented by Jesse Reno. Reno was an engineer, working at the time on a plan for a subway system in New York City, involving slanted conveyors lớn move sầu passengers underground. After the thành phố declined to adopt his plan, he focused instead on the công nghệ. Granted a patent in 1892 over an “Inclined Elevator,” he demonstrated the thiết kế at Coney Islvà in 1896: riding his invention, passengers leaned forward and stood on a conveyor belt of parallel cast-iron strips, powered by a concealed electric motor. During two weeks at Coney Islvà, 75,000 people were elevated seven feet. It was a sensation. Building on this success, a Reno Inclined Elevator was installed at the Brooklyn Bridge the following year.


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As so often happens when cultural movements & technological innovation intersect, another inventor contemporaneously created a different version of the moving staircase. George Wheeler’s “Elevator” was similar lớn what we know as the modern escalator, and it was the one that took hold in the market. It comprised steps that emerged from the floor và flattened at the over. Wheeler’s patents were purchased by Charles Seeberger in 1899, who quickly struchồng a giảm giá with elevator manufacturer Otis to produce moving staircases. Seeberger also coined the term “escalator”—from the French “l’escalade”, to lớn signify climbing—and registered the trademark ESCALATOR (US Reg. No. 34,724).

The Harvard Design School Guide khổng lồ Shopping notes that the escalator is aao ước the most important innovations in retail marketing, remarking that no invention has had more impact on shopping. It’s not hard khổng lồ see why. The elevator can transport a small number of people between floors. The stairway is constrained by the effort and commitment it requires from consumers to lớn move between floors. But the moving staircase democratizes all levels; upper floors become indistinguishable from lower. Retail traffic flows seamlessly between levels, so that the consumers can access higher floors with little more effort than entering on the first floor. The Siegel Cooper Department Store in New York was the first khổng lồ recognize its revolutionary potential, installing four of Reno’s inclined elevators in 1896.

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Jesse Reno"s "Inclined Elevator," patented September 9, 1902 (U.S. Patent 708,663)

A universe of possibility opened when moving staircases were introduced to the world at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900. The World’s Fair long served as the place where innovators demonstrated breakthrough technologies on the world stage—the show introduced the world to lớn the Colt revolver (London, 1851), the calculator (London, 1862), the gas-powered autodi động (Paris, 1889), the Ferris Wheel (Chicago 1893), the ice cream cone (St. Louis, 1904), và both atomic energy & television (San Francisteo, 1939).

The Paris Exposition of 1900, in particular, has been called one of the most important of them all. At the time, though, organizers and government officials were concerned how this Exposition would make its mark—after the introduction of the Eiffel Tower at the fair in 1889, how could the one 11 years later compete? Officials entertained many bizarre proposals, many of which involved alterations of the Eiffel Tower itself including the potential additions of clocks, sphinxes, terrestrial globes, & a 450-foot statue of a woman with eyes made from powerful searchlights lớn scan the 562-acre fairgrounds. Instead, rather than beams of light from a giantess, what shone brighthử nghiệm at the 1900 Paris Exposition was the moving staircase. It won Gr& Prize and a Gold Medal for its chất lượng & functional design.

This illustration shows the escalator in use at the Paris Exposition of 1900. (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

After the Exposition the invention spread internationally. Bloomingdale’s in New York removed its staircase & installed an inclined elevator in 1900. Macy’s followed suit in 1902. The Bon Marché in Paris installed the European “Fahrtreppe” in 1906. Escalators made department stores commercially viable entities in ways that stairs & the elevator simply could not. Vertical expansion of the stores inkhổng lồ upper levels was now as viable as horizontal expansion, but at a fraction of the cost.

The escalator did not simply revolutionize the shopping experience through vertical movement; it also created a new universe of human activity. Escalators transformed public transportation when they were installed in underground railway stations in Thủ đô New York và London in the early 1900s. In 1910, the Boston Sunday Globe included a series of illustrated comics providing a caricature of human behavior on the escalator, including “The Timid Lady Who Keeps the Crowd Waiting,” and “They Are Unable to Pass the Stout Party.” The newspaper noted that the “sport of escalating” is “a simple thing when you know how” but could fool “many an agile man.”

Within the workplace, the changes were equally revolutionary: throughout the first half of the 20th century, escalators quickly became a tool of workplace efficiency. They enabled rapid transition between shifts, và were installed by owners to lớn maximize efficiency for workers on a two- lớn three-shift system. Yet the benefit to lớn the workers was real, và, from mills in Massachusetts lớn the factories of the Soviet Union, escalators were often adopted as a potent symbol of the proletariat.

A Shanghai mall boasts these spiral escalators. (VCG/Getty Images)

With post-World War II prosperity and a renewed hunger for shopping in the United States, the escalator found an expanded market. An Otis advertisement at the time captured the spirit of the moment, when “the Escalator polished up its manners, put on a new dress of gleaming metal in the lakiểm tra streamline fashion, and went out in quest of new jobs.” Otis marketed directly lớn consumers, và its advertising was widely recognized và very successful: an “Advertising Times” columnist of the day wrote of the triumph of the Otis kinh doanh strategy, and the wisdom that the company had shown recognizing the power of “straight out-and-out advertising.”

Ironically, Otis’ sale success in making its escalator a household name cost the company one of its most important assets. In 1950 its competitor, the Haughton Elevator Company, petitioned the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office to cancel the ESCALATOR trademark, on the basis that the term had become generic khổng lồ engineers, architects, và the general public. In court, Otis’ ads were used against the company—one ad described “The Meaning of the Otis Trademark” in the following terms:

To the millions of daily passengers on the Otis elevators & escalators, the Otis trademark or name plate means safe, convenient, energy-saving transportation… To thousands of building owners and managers, the Otis trademark means the utmost in safe, efficient economical elevator & escalator operation.

Hong Kong"s Central Mid-Levels escalator system extends over a busy street. (Tuomas Lehtinen/Getty Images)

The USPTO found that the advertisements showed that Otis treated the term “escalator” in the same generic và descriptive way as the term “elevator.” The mark no longer represented the source of the product; it represented the hàng hóa itself. Consequently, the mark was canceled—và khổng lồ this day when you think of the word “escalator” you are unlikely to call khổng lồ mind the Otis company.

The modern market for escalators has increased dramatically. As cities around the world increase in density, they often rely on the escalator as a key architectural element, both above and below ground. In Hong Kong the Central Mid-Levels Escalators span an entire hillside—a 2,625-foot phối of moving sidewalks lined by open-air markets, stores, và apartment towers. The number of escalators in the world doubles every ten years: Otis continues to be a major player, although by 1993 its nemesis, the Haughton Elevator Company (now owned by Schindler) claimed khổng lồ have the largest market nói qua of escalators. Yet, amazingly, the basic size of these new escalators has barely changed from the design sketched out in the early Wheeler patents.

George Wheeler"s "Elevator," patented August 2, 1892 (U.S. Patent 479,864)

The revolutionary has become ordinary, and escalators are now simply part of the background cultural radiation of modern life. Movies are replete with escalator scenes, from An American Werewolf in London, khổng lồ Rain Man, khổng lồ The Hangover’s parody of the Rain Man escalator scene. Perhaps the movie Elf best encapsulates our relationship with the escalator. In that movie, Will Farrell plays a human raised by elves, who visits Thủ đô New York City lớn find his biological father. Alien lớn modern technology, he does not know how to step on an escalator at a department store and, after several aborted attempts that interrupt the flow of traffic và irritate those around hlặng, he steps on with one foot, holding onlớn the rails with his arms. His front foot escalates while the rest of hyên drags behind. The scene is a reminder of the strange wonder that is the escalator; one we now take for granted. It could be a scene by Buster Keaton, or drawn from the 1910 Boston Sunday Globe comic: “Man Who Forgets to lớn Step with Both Feet.” The scene is funny precisely because it calls up both the marvel và banality of the moving staircase.

We take the escalator for granted, in part, because it is that possibility realized; we all now inhabit the world of the escalator, with no longer a sense of its radical nature. The escalator may be the most important invention in shopping, but its impact reaches well beyond commerce. It has conquered space itself.