On this day in 1811, the inventor Elisha Otis was born. But before we get to him: yes, I know. This is the second day in the row that the birthday post has been about a 19th century American inventor named Elisha. But there weren’t a great many options today. Last year, I featured the beautiful and talented Dolores del Rio. And there were other people from the film business like John Landis and Martin Sheen. I suppose I could have done Tony Bennett, but for whatever reason I just don’t like his work, even though in a technical sense he’s very good. And maybe I should have featured crime writer P D James who is 94 today. But having never read any of her work, I didn’t feel I should. So we get Otis. And it turns out that Otis is a really interesting guy.
Otis was born in Vermont and spent his entire life in the northeast. He moved around a lot because he was unsuccessful for most of his life. Like a lot of people at that time, he was just trying to make ends meet. And so he moved from place to place and job to job. But the thing about Otis is that he was an inventor by nature—always looking for ways to improve the way things were done. At one point, he designed and built his own gristmill, a device used to turn grain into flour. When he found he couldn’t make enough money with it, he retooled it into a sawmill. When that didn’t pay the bills, he started building wagons.
At this point, tragedy struck: his wife died, leaving him with two boys: an eight-year-old and a baby. He struggled on for another two years, before moving and starting over. He found work in a toy factory. Probably bored with the work and not keen on his pay, he started thinking. He invented a “robot turner,” which allowed bedsteads to be made four times as fast. How exactly the bedsteads were part of the toys, I cannot say. For doing this, his boss gave him a $500 bonus. (Very roughly, I think that’s about $50,000 today—maybe more.) That I find remarkable, because that isn’t so much the way it works today. But it really does help when boss and employee aren’t separated by distance and unbridgeable class gulfs.
With the money he got, Otis moved on again. He started a business where he was working on a new system for stopping trains almost immediately. This is kind of interesting, because it would seem that Otis was a careful man. And this would lead him to greatness. But not yet. He was using a stream to power his operation. But the city of Albany diverted the stream for its own purposes and so he was put out of business. So off Otis move again. And then again, moving to Yonkers where he managed a sawmill—actually he was there to retool it into a factor for making bedsteads. This is where the dramatic music comes in. Imagine it now.
While working at the sawmill, he found use for an elevator. But, being a careful man, he was concerned about the biggest problem with these things: cables broke, elevators fell, and people were hurt. So he invented a system at the top of the elevator car. As long as there was tension on the cable, the brakes were pulled away from the elevator shaft. But if the cable broke, the tension was gone, and the brakes slammed onto the side of the elevator shaft, stopping the car. You can see this in the following illustration from his eventual patent:
At first, Otis didn’t think that much of the invention. And you can kind of see why: it is quite simple. But it is also brilliant. And perhaps his greatest insight was his concern for safety. Regardless, he eventually started what would become Otis Brothers & Co. At first, this business too wasn’t doing well. It was only after a very flashy demonstration of the break at the 1854 Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations (World’s Fair) in New York that the orders started coming in. Otis died only seven years later of diphtheria, but his two sons took over what he had left to them. The rest, as they say, is history.
Happy birthday Elisha Otis!
Here is Pete Jive doing a very energetic and fun version of Jim Croce’s “Careful Man”: