Elevators Civil War Style – American Civil War Voices

Otis Tufts
Otis Tufts, Inventor of the Vertical Railway

Yes, there were elevators in use during the Civil War. In fact, elevators actually have a very long history. Elevators or hoists to lift supplies to the top floors of buildings or to lower men and equipment into mines using pulleys can be dated back to the third century. These simple platforms were raised by means of man, water, or animal power.

A major change occurred in the early 1800s when steam power was applied to lifting and lowering commercial hoists. The problem was sometimes the cables operating these elevators broke and anyone riding on them was – oops – killed.

Vertical Railway
Model of Tuft’s Vertical Railway

In 1859, Otis Tufts, a Lowell, Massachusetts inventor who developed improved printing presses, the steam pile driver, and the double hulled steamship, put his mind to designing a safe elevator to carry people. He mounted a completely enclosed passenger car furnished with seats and an automatic closing door on a long spiral screw that ran through the car and lifted and lowered it using a steam engine. It was slow, costly, and extremely safe. He called his invention – the Vertical Screw or the Vertical Railway. It was the first passenger elevator. In 1860, Vertical Railways were installed into two of the preeminent hotels of the time – the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City and the Continental Hotel in Philadelphia.

Continental HotelHere is a description of the Otis Tufts’ elevator in the Continental Hotel taken from A History of American Manufactures from 1608 to 1860 Vol.3, by Bishop et al, 1868. p. 38.

“Among the specialities of this firm’s manufactures may

Fifth Avenue Hotel
Fifth Avenue Hotel

be mentioned the Vertical Railway and Elevator now in use in the Continental Hotel, in Philadelphia. Standing on a substantial foundation, in the basement, is a Rectangular Cast Iron Column, thirteen by seventeen inches in diameter and eighty-nine feet in height, made in six sections, accurately planed and bolted together, and connected by massive Iron Girders to the floor timbers of the building. Two iron rails, also planed, are bolted to the Girders, one on either side of the column, and parallel with it, which serve as guides for the car in ascending and descending.

Attached to the column by appropriate bearings, is the screw, composed of seven sections, permanently coupled, making one continuous spiral of eighteen inch pitch, from the basement to the roof. The diameter of this screw, exclusive of the thread, is twelve inches, with the thread, seventeen inches, turned and polished the entire length of eighty-four feet. The thread forms a smooth inclined spiral two and a half inches wide up and down, which the nut travels; direct contact being avoided by the introduction of numerous friction rolls of brass. To this nut the car is suspended, or forms a part of the same, with guiding wheels that press against the Parallel Rails on either side, to steady the car and prevent oscillation. A heavy weight attached to the car by a wire rope passing over a pulley counterbalances it, and so smooth and regular is its motion, that one hardly feels it when seated within the car. The finished weight of the screw is fifteen thousand pounds, and it rests on a step of peculiar construction, so arranged that no difficulty is ever experienced in the wearing or heating of the surfaces in contact.

The entire finished weight of the different parts is as follows: Main Column, 17,870 pounds; Parallel Tracks, 11,816 pounds; Screw 16,000 pounds; Girders and other work, 61,647 pounds; Total 106,232 pounds, or over fifty-three tons.

Unfortunately for Otis Tufts, the Vertical Railway was not a commercially viable design. It was massive, expensive, and if going more than four floors cost-prohibitive. At the same time, another inventor with a very similar name, Elisha Graves Otis, developed a locking mechanism that prevented any simple elevator  or hoist from plummeting to earth if the cable broke.

history-elevator Otis at Crystal Palace
Elisha Otis demonstrates his locking mechanism.

Elisha Otis established the Otis Elevator company and being a flamboyant salesman, demonstrated the locking mechanism by riding an open lift and having the cable cut. With this lock elevators could be built cheaper than Tufts’ and go to much higher levels leading the way to high rises and skyscrapers. Although all he perfected was the locking mechanism, Elisha Otis has become accredited with designing elevators and Otis Tufts has been forgotten. But isn’t that the way of history?

Learn more about elevator history by reading: Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator by Andreas Bernard

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