For German engineers, elevators did not represent the novelty they did in the USA at the end of the 19th century. In this country, the touted elevators were seen more as “children’s toys” than as an engineering challenge. After all, elevators for multi-story buildings were comparatively slow and only traversed low heights. In the German coal mines, the rope elevators had to overcome thousands of meters underground – and quite rapidly at that. If the first elevators in buildings managed to travel at a speed of 1.5 meters per second, around the year 1890, the speed was between three and five meters.
No comparison with the pit lifts, which were more than ten times faster. However, these were not allowed to be used by the miners themselves, but were only permitted for transporting materials. All too often, the ropes broke, even though they were regularly inspected in detail. These rope breaks in countries with many coal mines aroused different fears than in the USA, where, with the exception of the Gold Rush starting in 1849, there had been no historically long collective memory of mine disasters of this kind. It was not until the use of steel ropes from the middle of the 19th century that fears of rope breaks were no longer evoked even among miners.
Germany was one of the pioneers of elevators. Erhard Weigel, a mathematician from Jena, had a special feature installed in his seven-story house built in 1670. It was an elevator operated by pulleys. Speaking of bottles: You didn’t need them in this house, because he also had a wine line laid directly from the cellar.
The Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, who reigned from 1740 to 1780 and not only gave birth to 16 children and waged wars during her reign, but also always gorged on meals, was also already so weakened by illness in the last years of her life that she was no longer able to climb the steps of the Vienna Imperial Crypt, where the Habsburg emperors are buried. A small lift was installed for her, which enabled her to pray in the crypt of her parents.
Around 1850, the first elevators were installed in the USA, around 1870, all major hotels on the East Coast were equipped with them, and around 1890, they were almost standard building equipment. In the process, they changed not only the design and height of buildings, but also what was considered the “Beletage” in a building. Until the triumph of the elevator, the height of buildings was limited to six or seven stories, with the best apartments on the first or second floor and the worst under the roof. The elevator not only allowed houses to grow in height – and around a central elevator shaft, which was then the first to be built in new buildings. The best apartments were also at the top, away from street noise and dirt, with access to plenty of light and a good view.
Because of the fear of a rope break, not only were the building authorities skeptical about elevators, but the elevator users did not trust them either. For safety reasons, hydraulic lifts were preferred. With this device, the car sits on hydraulic rods that slowly raise it into the air. The disadvantages of this design include the need to excavate an appropriate depression in the ground for the rods, the speed of the car is relatively slow, and only a small number of floors can be covered.
In fact, the fear of a rope break was completely unfounded. Until before the First World War, there was only one report of a fatal accident in which the car had crashed. And this elevator had been operated hydraulically. Three people died in the Grand Hotel in Paris on February 24, 1878, triggered by technical failure. A casting used to attach the hydraulic rod to the bottom of the elevator car had broken. The counterweight of the car, separated from the hydraulic rod, had now carried it uncontrollably to the last floor together with the hotel manager, the elevator boy and a hotel guest. There, the collision with the upper boundary ruptured the cable connection located on the cabin roof, whereupon the cabin plunged into the depths and shattered at the bottom.
A greater danger arose not from the ride with the cabin itself, but when getting on and off. The sliding doors that are common today did not appear until after the Second World War. Before that, they had mainly been grille doors that had to be operated manually and secured the car. These grids could also be opened when no elevator car was available. As a result, people repeatedly fell into the depths. One such accident occurred in the “Gerngroß” department store on Mariahilferstrasse in Vienna, as the Wiener Zeitung reported on May 15, 1916:
The 47-year-old employee Karl Rudolf wanted to use the elevator to go to the second floor. As the elevator hovered between the second and third floors, Rudolf fell into the depths of the shaft and remained dead with serious injuries. It is assumed that Rudolf thought the elevator was still stopping on the second floor, while it had already started moving after the third floor. Rudolf probably tried to get out and fell into the depth.Wiener Zeitung from Mai 15th, 1916 – Source
When elevator doors did not protect users from falling, they sometimes killed them themselves. On August 13, 1904, for example, the Neue Wiener Journal reported on a “terrible accident” in Berlin that Prince Friedrich Leopold witnessed as an eyewitness:
A horrific elevator accident occurred this afternoon at 4 o’clock before the eyes of Prince Friedrich Leopold. The prince, who as is known is leaving Potsdam in the next few days to depart for East Asia, visited the firm of Tippelskirch & Comp. in Potsdamerstrasse today to inspect some travel equipment. The prince then boarded the elevator with his aide, which was set in motion by the attendant. The attendant made a misstep and got his body caught between the elevator and the iron rails. The elevator was immediately brought to a halt and the fire department was alerted. It took a long time before the unfortunate man could be freed from his terrible situation. Soon after his release, the unfortunate man died under the hands of the doctors who had been brought in. Only then were the prince and the adjutant brought out of the elevator.Neue Wiener Journal from August 13th, 1904 – Source
At least the prince had remained unharmed. It was not until around 1890 that a new invention – electrical contacts in the doors and cabins – solved the problem of unintentional door opening.
Less obvious, but still worrying, were other effects caused by this technology: “elevator sickness”. In 1890, this syndrome was first presented in Scientific American.
The elevator in modern large buildings has only one drawback, and that is the sickness it causes when the car is suddenly stopped. For people with a sensitive constitution, this disease is often such a serious matter that the elevator is a dangerous blessing for them. … The stoppage of the elevator car brings dizziness in the head and sometimes nausea in the stomach. The internal organs want to rise in the throat.Scientific American, 1890
Similar observations had been made decades earlier when railroads were first used, and some passengers had begun to suffer from nervous irritation. Even if the use of elevators had become common, it was mainly for going up. The descent was still made via the stairwell – until the first brash “adventurers” began to use the elevator for the “dangerous descent” as well. Thus, in the second case study in Sigmund Freud’s and Josef Breuer’s “Studies on Hysteria”, the authors describe a sudden neurotic episode in the patient “Emmy v. N.”:
When asked, she tells us that the boarding house where the children are staying here is on the fifth floor and is accessible by elevator. Yesterday she asked the children to use the elevator also for the departure and now accuses herself that the elevator is not quite reliable. […]
Anyway, four years after it was first mentioned in Scientific American, the Washington Post quoted a Chicago doctor as saying:
The cases of elevator sickness are increasing. It is now well defined. Its effects are found in an increased number of cases of brain fever and disturbed nervous system.Washington Post, 1894
This confident announcement of the Chicago physician’s findings was apparently the last mention of the disease in American publications. In time with the disappearance of this syndrome, another had already taken its place – and remained: Claustrophobia. Fear of confined spaces was first mentioned between the years 1870 and 1880, precisely when elevators were becoming more common.
Elevators have also been the setting for a number of encounters and stories. Thomas Mann’s book “Confessions of Felix Krull,” an impostor, has the elevator in a Paris Grand Hotel as its central setting, where Felix Krull works as an elevator boy. The 1984 film “Downward” is about four people who get stuck in an elevator in a Frankfurt office tower on a Friday night and experience hell with and through each other during the hours of waiting. In many action films with heroes played by Jackie Chan, Angelina Jolie or Jason Statham, elevator cabs and elevator shafts are the sites of dramatic battles in confined and dangerous spaces.
Elevators posed special challenges for court etiquette and protocol. First of all, there is the question of whether or not to remove one’s hat in an elevator, or how closely one stands together. Is this still a public space or more of a private space? The first elevators were furnished like rooms, with a sofa, candelabras and elaborate glass ornaments. It was more delicate when we talk about rulers. The wedding of the only daughter of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Princess Viktoria Luise, in 1913 was the source of great concern. The best hotel in Berlin, the Hotel Adlon on Pariser Platz, was to host 800 high-ranking guests from all over the world. The complication came – how could it be otherwise? – by the elevator and the attitudes of the fine gentlemen.
For example, the emperor’s brother-in-law, Duke Ernst Günther of Schleswig-Holstein, had insisted on being accommodated with his wife on the fourth floor of the hotel. A few days before the wedding, however, the duke and duchess had to move to the second floor because the Russian tsar wanted to pay a courtesy call on the ducal couple and it was out of the question for the tsar to use the elevator. Too many questions were, and still are, unanswered about the use of elevators by rulers. For example, the Russian tsar could not be expected to wait several minutes in the confines of the elevator cabin with aides and others. And the tsarist court protocol, which dates back to the time of Catherine the Great, naturally lacked regulations on elevator use. To this day, Russian President Putin does not use an elevator because its use poses too great a risk to the bodyguard and security services.
But elevators also served as the setting for amusing and salacious stories early on. The story of a young bride and groom seemed to have found particular favor with the tabloid press in the “miscellaneous” sections at the turn of the 20th century. It appeared in dozens of papers over the course of the year. Today we would say “it went viral.” In 1909, for example, the Bludenzer Anzeiger printed this “misadventure” from Berlin.
A newlywed couple was on their way to their new home after the festivities, which had the then-unbelievable luxury of night lighting and an elevator. Apparently the young couple were using the elevator for the first time, because the husband was clumsy when getting on. Whether because of the consumed alcohol, fatigue, the desire to consummate the marriage soon or for all these reasons is unclear. In any case, the night lights went out at the exact moment when the elevator started moving. Immediately, the husband groped for the light switch in the darkness, but caught the stop button. The elevator came to a stop with a jerk, which violently frightened the young wife. Full of fear, she asked her husband not to press another button. The latter – obedient as only fresh husbands can be – followed his crying wife’s request. Both fell asleep in the elevator. Early in the morning, to his surprise, the doorman discovered the two of them tightly embraced on the elevator bench and freed them from the awkward situation they had spent “floating in bliss.
As late as 1945, there were 15,000 elevator operators of both sexes in Manhattan who went on strike on September 24, 1945, leaving 1,500 office buildings without functioning elevators. Employees were forced to take long walks from the top floors. Such strikes caused great financial damage to the companies in these skyscrapers. There were still elevator boys and elevator girls, although even then the technology for automatic lifts was available. But the fear was still too great of having to remain in a defective elevator hundreds of meters down an empty shaft just hanging on a rope without an elevator boy. In 1952, however, the Elevator Industry Association had found in a study that automatic elevators were five times safer than those with an elevator operator.
In the mid-1950s, after a few more strikes, office buildings were finally completely converted to automatic elevators. Today, an elevator boy would seem strange to us. But the discussion should sound familiar, only the technology has changed. Today, we have the same discussions about safety in human-driven cars and autonomous cars.
This post is an excerpt from the book Future Angst (in German), published August 19th, 2021 by Plassen Publishing.