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A brief history of elevators

Sung Jin Cho on Unsplash

The need to go up or down is an engineering challenge humans have undertaken for thousands of years. Today we take elevators for granted, but the very first elevators, known as hoists, were very different. The first mention of them was by Roman architect, Vitruvius, who described a contraption built by Archimedes in Greece in 235 BC that was powered by a water wheel and animals. Other hoists used ropes and levers to control the lifting of goods and people.

The elevators we are familiar with were created in the mid-1800s to move things in mines and factories. They quickly evolved into moving people. A human operator managed the process of raising and lowering the elevator and guiding it to the same level as the building floor. (A JavaScript game called Elevator Saga shows how complicated it can be to manage one or more elevators efficiently.)

Modern elevators use microprocessors and software code to figure out how to move as many people as possible as efficiently as possible. I find elevators interesting in how they manage the travel to different floors. Instead of buttons for every floor, you simply tell the elevator which floor you need and it calculates which elevator car to use based on where everyone else wants to go.

The first elevators were called hoists and used ropes and humans or animals. Some hoists were powered by water. Archimedes built a hoist around 235 BC and the Romans used hoists starting around a hundred years later.

The Roman Colosseum, completed in 80 AD, had 25 elevators that used hoists to transport gladiators and wild animals from underground to the arena level. Each elevator could hold 600 pounds (roughly the weight of two lions), and traveled 23 feet up when powered by up to eight men.

In the Middle Ages, monasteries built in the mountains used baskets and ropes to move people and goods.

In 1793, Russian mechanic Ivan Kulibin installed an elevator in the Winter Palace with a cabin lifted by a screw drive mechanism.

The German Thyssenkrupp Elevator company has developed its first magnetic elevator, called Multi, and plans to start using it in 2025. These elevators may not have a height limit and will use their magnetic field to go sideways as well as up.

Until elevators came along, the top floor was the worst place to live because of having to climb all the stairs. In New York City, buildings only went up six floors just for this reason. Once elevators came along, the top floor eventually became the most valuable because it was quieter and had a great view.

The tallest building in the world is 163 stories, the highest any elevator can go because of the weight of the steel ropes.

Riyas Mohammed on Unsplash

Many buildings and elevators do not have a 13th floor because of triskaidekaphobia, the fear of the number 13.

Building elevators were originally operated manually by a man or a young boy. Before WWI, in Germany, it took three years to learn how to pull ropes and manage the elevator engine to glide to a stop level with a specific floor. Buttons eventually replaced the need for human operators.

Learn More



Lift off! 10 incredible facts about the elevator


A short history of the elevator


Elevator Operator


Multi Elevator


A Guide for Choosing the Type of Elevator You Need