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The Oldest Otis Elevator

Summer 1986 | Volume 2 |  Issue 1
Across the way from the portentous WPA Romanism of the National Archives in Washington, D.C., a cheerful stand of Federal buildings has managed to survive, and in one of them is a machine that changed the way the world looks.

Fate has put this mechanism in the hands of Fred Litwin, and it couldn’t have found a better curator. Litwin is a used-furniture dealer—his family has been working in the store at 637 Indiana Avenue, N.W., since before World War I—but he speaks with the authority of a historian and the passion of a dedicated preservationist.

“Elisha Otis was born in Vermont,” he says, “but he came down to make bedsteads in New Jersey in 1851, and then the business moved to Yonkers, and he got the job of putting the hoist in the new factory—and that’s when he built his first elevator.” The elevator Litwin is standing next to as he speaks may well be Otis’s second.

Otis did not invent the elevator—Archimedes developed a hoisting machine in the third century B.c., and big lifts carried squads of gladiators to the Colosseum’s arena floor. What Otis did was make the device safe.

Six feet above his first elevator’s floor, Otis built a wooden yoke, like the handle of a huge basket. The yoke held a steel carriage spring, and the cable that lifted the elevator was attached to the spring. The weight of the car kept the spring in constant compression; but should the cable part, the spring, released, would snap back into its oval shape and in so doing press down on two iron bars whose ends would in turn drive out through the sides of the elevator to lock into notched iron rails that ran the length of the shaft.

Otis demonstrated his invention again and again at the 1854 American Institute Fair in New York City’s Crystal Palace. Standing in the elevator along-side some hogsheads and packing cases, he would ascend thirty feet and then signal an assistant to cut the rope. As the safety mechanism banged into place, Otis would complacently lift his top hat and call to the crowd below, “All safe, gentlemen, all safe!”

Otis offered his first elevators as freight hoists, but others saw that people would ride them too. Suddenly the upper stories of buildings, long the cheapest and hardest to rent, became, in the words of an 1869 Otis catalog, “the best and most profitable parts of the house,” where one “enjoys a purity and coolness of atmosphere, an extended prospect, and an exemption from noise, dust, and exhalations” after a miraculous ascent “in half a minute of repose and quiet.”

In little more than a generation, the elevator—in working partnership with curtain-wall construction—summoned from the low cities of the nineteenth century the skyscrapers that would define urban life in the twentieth.

That tremendous change flowed from the fifty-one-inch-square platform that Fred Litwin is lifting a chair onto. He points to the safety mechanism, all of it obviously hand-wrought. “I didn’t know what I had until they started talking about tearing down my place.” With urban renewal breathing down his neck, Litwin looked into his store’s past, and found it to be one of the three oldest surviving commercial buildings in Washington.

Sometime during Litwin’s researches, Robert Vogel, the Smithsonian’s curator of mechanical and civil engineering, came into the store. “He knows everything,” says Litwin. “He walked by my elevator and just glanced at it—no more than that—and said right away, ‘I think this is an Otis. You ought to look into this, Fred.’” What had roused Vogel’s interest was the absence of something. Litwin explains: “Those bars in the safety mechanism, they don’t do a wonderful job. They’re not jointed and they’ll catch and hold on only one side. By the time Otis was doing his Crystal Palace demonstrations, he had solved the problem by putting in pivot pins. So this elevator must have been put in here before 1854.”

Litwin hauls on the lift rope, which is slung over a shim in the attic the size of a dining-room table. The elevator rises with a comfortable mutter.

“I had to replace this rope for the first time in 1951. It was hard finding one-and-a-quarter-inch Manila hemp, and harder to find someone to splice it. I finally got a guy off a fireboat.”

He tugs some more. “It’s got a six-hundred-pound counterweight, so the pull isn’t too tough. But someday I’m not going to be able to do it anymore. When that day comes, the elevator is going over to the Smithsonian.”

The platform has reached the third floor. Litwin starts upstairs to unload it, then glances back at the empty shaft.

“The inspectors test it every five years. In the old days they used to cut it loose with a twelve-hundred-pound load, and it took a hell of a beating. But I got the Smithsonian to put in a word a while back, and since then they’re using only seven hundred pounds. And when the inspector comes now, it’s a real ritual. They’re so nice. They do everything they have to, but they’re gentle. And respectful.”

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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