Wednesday, 29 January 2020
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When the stairs were still an elevator

The escalator, which has transformed our cities and our lives, was born 125 years ago – it’s time to look back at the beginnings of the technology.

Shoppers ride the vintage wooden escalators in the Macy‘s Herald Square flagship store in New York on. Macy‘s retained the original circa 1920 wooden escalators after their $400 million renovation. (Photo: © Richard Levine/Alamy)

The beginnings are even more remote and to be found in the countryside: in Saugus in the north-east of the USA, the home of Nathan Ames, who was to go down in history as the inventor of the escalator.

First designs remained mere ideas

Nathan Ames wanted to make it easier to reach upper floors with his steam-powered (!) “revolving stairs.” But they were unsuitable in practice, just like his double steps, which went up on one side and on the other downwards - a diabolical stairway for the daring, for which he received a US patent on 9 August 1859.

Consequently, the first designs remained mere ideas, just like those of Leamon Souder from Pennsylvania, who likewise developed revolving stairs and received the first of several US patents for them in 1889. ViBut perhaps the two inventors were not even interested actual practice, since they after all came from small towns which did not need any escalators.

Reno invented earliest form of the escalator

Jesse W. Reno was far more influential. In 1892, the New York engineer received a US patent on the “endless conveyor or elevator” that he installed at the Coney Island amusement park: a conveyor belt that could transport 3,000 people an hour up a 25° degree incline to a height of 2.10 m. With this Reno had invented the earliest form of the escalator, which became popular even before the first escalators.

HandwerkAround 1900 Reno installations could be found in bigger US department stores and many subway stations and suburban railway stations in New York, which already had 3.4 million inhabitants. But the United Kingdom and France were also enthusiastic about the technology, which created a sensation in Crystal Palace, at the Paris World Exhibition in 1900 and railway stations.

Others soon entered the business, for example Piat, which in 1898 installed Britain’s first early form of the escalator in London’s elite department store Harrods. The 12 m installation with its conveyor belt consisting of 224 leather steps was intended to transport wealthy visitors to the first floor - and inspire them to purchase an installation. In Germany the Peniger Maschinenfabrik, Unruh & Liebig Division, installed the first early escalator in the salesrooms of August Polich, Leipzig.

The birth of the escalator

The first fully-practical escalator was invented by the American George A Wheeler. The officer received a patent on the “new and useful elevator” 125 years ago on 2 August 1892, fitted with moveable step elements, an electric drive at the top, handrail with its own drive and platform areas at the top and bottom.

But the invention was implemented by others: first by Charles D Seeberger, who bought Wheeler’s patent and then by the Otis Company with which Seeberger concluded a manufacturing agreement before he relinquished the patent entirely to it. In 1899 the company built the first escalator prototype.

Incidentally, Seeberger also invented the term “escalator”, which was intended to be reminiscent of the “elevator.” Like the lift, the “escalator” – which was then often simply called “inclined elevator” – was intended to transport people upwards, using moving steps. This term includes the Italian “scala” (step) and English “escalade.” After all, the escalator was regarded as a symbol of a new, dynamic era in which underground trains, lifts and conveyor belts were accelerating life and work.

Terminological confusion

The term “escalator”, which into the 1950s was a brand name of Otis Company, still creates confusion. For example, on 15 March this year many articles appeared in the media regarding the alleged 125th anniversary of the escalator. In fact, an application was submitted in 15 March 1892 for the inclined elevator, which was really a conveyor belt – by Jesse Reno, who was thereby incorrectly celebrated as the inventor of the escalator.

HandwerkAn original feature of the early escalators was the exit: a balustrade across the step area guided users away to the side at the end of their trip. The aim was to prevent shoes or clothing being dragged into the steps, which still had no grooves. All of this changed in 1911 when Otis took over the Reno Electric Stairway and Conveyor Company and with it the moving stairway production. Otis then produced both systems in parallel until it launched a new design of escalator: with step grooves and the comb of the Reno moving stairway design, which thereby also eliminated the lateral exit.

A model like this was also used in the Berlin department store Tietz, which as a result apparently received the first escalator in Germany. Once the narrow-ribbed metal step was introduced in 1938, the modern escalator as it is known today had come into existence.

The development goes on

Today over 35,000 escalators are in operation in Germany alone, according to an estimate of the German Engineering Association (VDMA). Almost 400 to 500 new escalators are added annually.

The modern systems differ from their predecessor particularly with regard to space-and energy-saving. For example, Kone developed the first “green” escalator in the mid-1990s, which no longer needed any oil for the step chain and in the meantime does not need any lubricant for the handrail chain either. The location of the drive in the step chain was also forward-looking, combined with a planetary gear train - a solution that was first realised in the early 1990s in Kone escalators.

Four of these asynchronous drives were used in the two arched escalators that the company developed for the Hamburg Elbe Philharmonic Hall: space-saving, oil-less, well-ventilated and highly energy-efficient. “The escalators are exemplary,” said Kone project manager Heinrich Zeiger, “Greater effectiveness than here has previously not been achieved anywhere.”

Nicole Köster, Head of Marketing & Communication, Kone GmbH

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