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Elevator Detective

Winter 1990 | Volume 5 |  Issue 3

Where is the oldest Otis elevator? As archivist for the Otis Elevator Company, I am asked that question more often than any other. I thought 1 finally had the answer in the summer of 1986 when this magazine came out with an article titled “The Oldest Otis.” It sounded too good to be true. It was.

Surviving records reveal where Elisha Otis shipped his earliest elevators but do not, of course, indicate if any particular installation has survived. In the I&T article—part of the ongoing “They’re Still There” feature—Richard Snow identified an old freight elevator in Washington, D.C., as a pre-May 1854 machine, possibly the second that Otis (or anyone) ever built.

As soon as I had read the story, I started digging. I turned to Otis sales ledgers and learned that Otis shipped no elevators to Washington before May 1854. Was this a later model? A non-Otis? I delved deeper.

Otis built the first safety elevator- which wouldn’t drop even if the hoisting rope broke—at a factory where he was working in 1852. The safety consisted of a spring held taut by the rope; if released by the breaking of the rope, the ends of the spring would catch in ratchets along the wall. Otis sold three elevators in New York in 1853. The following May he demonstrated his elevator at the New York world’s fair by standing in it while the supporting rope was cut.

I gladly accepted the invitation of Fred Litwin, the owner of the elevator in Washington, to come see it. On the ground floor I examined the elevator car, the safety device, and the roller guides. On the third floor I looked at the hoisting wheel, gears, sheave, and ropes. I found several clues.

First, the safety was indeed an Otistype spring safety, but it was simpler than what Otis was using even in May 1854 (one reason the elevator was be- lieved to be earlier). It had single bent arms where Otis used separate pieces connected by pivots. Furthermore, the lift rode up the shaft steadied by roller guides. Otis used no guides before 1868 and a dissimilar system after. Also, other parts didn’t match those in illustrations of Otis equipment.

Then the clincher: A name on the hoisting wheel. Not Otis, but Bates. One James Bates had established an iron foundry and machine works in BaI- timoré in 1840. He advertised “hoisting machines for warehouses” in the 185Os. Later advertisements—as late as 1885—showed freight elevators like the Litwin machine.


Purely by accident I found some Bates correspondence while looking for something else at the Smithsonian archives. The Smithsonian had bought Bates lifts in 1867 and 1879. So Washington was a market for Bates equipment. The Bates letterhead shows that Bates won a prize for its elevators at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876 and indicates a patent for elevators. The patent descriptions and illustrations in it fit the Litwin elevator.

So I firmly concluded that the Litwin “Otis” is an elevator made in Baltimore in the 187Os or 188Os by James Bates- one of the many competitors of the Otis company. It’s not an Otis at all.

This was far from the first detective job I had done as corporate archivist. I conducted one investigation not long ago because of a lawsuit. Otis had installed an elevator at a New York City address in 1916; it broke in 1982, and the owner sued. The claim: faulty equipment. From the Otis archives I produced engineering drawings, sales literature, and maintenance manuals from the period. With these documents Otis presented its defense: the original equipment had been modified after installation, the elevator had never been under Otis maintenance, and the machine had not been maintained to Otis standards. The case was dropped last year.

Recently Otis executives asked me to dig up the history of Otis in Russia. I uncovered sales to Russian customers, including Czar Nicholas II, before the Revolution, and sales of hoists to the Soviet Union in the early 1930s. These long-forgotten dealings surprised even the company’s own executives.

I am now a member of the Otis History Committee, which will produce a book on the history of Otis. Yet my position is corporate—with United Technologies. I provide archival services not only to Otis but also to Pratt & Whitney (aircraft engines) and the other divisions of the corporation. Among Pratt & Whitney’s records I not long ago found a reference to Amelia Earhart’s mother, whose maiden name was Otis. A coincidence? I checked. The flyer and the inventor of the safety elevator descended from the same John Otis who immigrated to Massachusetts in the 1600s.

I found the oldest Otis ancestor. We’re still looking for the oldest Otis elevator.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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