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Passengers, Grain, and the Urban Landscape

Otis demonstrating the safety hoist. From Vertical: Lift, Escalator, Paternoster: a Cultural History of Vertical Transport, edited by Vittorio Magnano Lampugnani, et. al. (Berlin: Ernst & Sohn, 1994).

One hundred fifty years ago, Elisha Otis, from his position high in the air, asked for the rope cable that connected his “safety hoist” at New York’s Crystal Palace to be cut (left). Thus the modern elevator was born, though Otis’s first passenger elevator sale didn't come until his 1857 installation of a steam-powered elevator in the Haughwout & Co. store in New York City (he had sold freight elevators before then).

The passenger elevator made possible the skyscraper -- often called an "elevator building" in the 19th century -- and those buildings made possible the growth of cities such as Chicago and New York, hemmed in by natural features (the Chicago river; the geography of Manhattan). Chicago's first steam-powered passenger elevator was in 1864. By 1870 C.W. Baldwin and William E. Hale in Chicago had developed hydraulic elevators, faster and smoother than the steam elevator -- Louis Sullivan wrote that Hale was one of two men "responsible for the modern office building". By 1887, the first successful electric elevator had been introduced and “sky-scrapers” (as they were called) rose to new heights.

"Seneca Grain Elevator: Illinois & Michigan Canal State Trail, I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor" (Illinois Department of Conservation; National Park Service, 1988).

Chicago’s growth depended on a different sort of elevator: the grain elevator (right), which allowed for rapid storage, shipment, and sales of grains, which were for the first time graded, and hence fungible, in Chicago. Although the first steam-powered grain elevator was introduced in Buffalo in 1842, by the late 1850s "Chicagoans had refined their elevator system beyond that of any other city, leading the way toward a transformation of grain marketing worldwide."

Elevators of all three sorts – passenger, freight, and storage -- led to the creation of modern city, and in particular to the modern Chicago. These machines shaped urban centers, the surrounding countryside, and the economic, social, and cultural worlds around them. This exhibit reflects on some of the changes introduced by the elevator over the past 150 years.

Mr. Otis’s device and the company he started survive to this day.



Next: Chicago Rising


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