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Monday, August 03, 2015

He had his ups and downs

Business after business failed for Elisha Graves Otis in the 1830s and 1840s. He designed a gristmill, which failed. He made it a sawmill, which failed. He built wagons and carriages. Then his wife died leaving him two sons, one 8 and the other in diapers. He moved to Albany, New York, working for a doll maker and then a maker of bedsteads (which you lay a mattress on instead of box springs). He invented a machine to make bedsteads faster. His boss gave him a bonus and Otis promptly began his own business. He made a bread baker and a safety brake for trains, using a stream to supply energy for his factory. The city diverted the stream for water use, and he was out of business. It was the best thing that ever happened to him.

Leaving Albany at 40, he went to work in Yonkers, New York, installing machinery for the bedstead firm of Maize and Burns. Getting heavy machines to the top floors posed a problem. The best way would be to use an elevator, an invention that dated back to three hundred years before Christ. The problem with elevators came when the cable broke and the car fell to the ground.

Otis came up with a solution which would help change the skyline of New York City and every other city on the planet -- the safety brake. He used springs on the side of the car to slow and stop an elevator car should the cable break. This enabled elevators to go into extensive use, and along with steel and iron girders, would make skyscrapers possible and practical. The ability to expand Manhattan vertically created a megapolis out of a metropolis.

He made little money on his brake until May 1854, when he demonstrated this safety device at the Crystal Palace Exposition in New York (not to be confused with the ones in London). P.T. Barnum publicized the event. As a crowd gathered, Otis rose up an elevator shaft. At the top, he had the rope cut. His car did not crash. The platform fell only a few inches. People applauded. Over the next three years, he installed 40 elevators including a shaft that rose five stories at the Haughwout Department Store.

Born in Halifax, Vermont, on August 3, 1811, Otis had little formal education, but he had a mechanical mind. But his elevator brake was not his only accomplishment. When he died of diphtheria on April 8, 1861, at age 49, those boys he raised -- Charles and Norton -- were able to take over the company and turn his fledgling company into a worldwide success. They installed elevators in the Eiffel Tower and at the Washington Monument. More than 1.8 million Otis Elevators have their ups and downs across the world today. United Technologies now owns the company, which has 60,000 employees.

Elisha Otis failed to let failure define him.

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.


  1. I heard a Puzzler on Car Talk a few years ago about a manufacturer's building that did not use its product. Seems the Otis HQ is a one-story building.

  2. If multiple business failures were good for Mr. Otis why are multiple business bankruptcies bad for Mr. Trump?