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The history and safety of elevators

Elevators have come a long way from their primitive beginnings, evolving into sophisticated machines integral to modern urban life. Their journey, marked by significant technological advancements and safety innovations, reflects humanity’s relentless pursuit of efficiency and safety in vertical transportation.

Early elevator demonstration illustration.

Ancient Times

The concept of vertical transportation dates back to ancient civilizations like the Greeks and Romans. These early elevators were simple systems of ropes and pulleys, often powered by human or animal labour. These mechanisms, though rudimentary, were crucial for moving goods and occasionally people, especially in large architectural structures.

Medieval Europe

During the Middle Ages, elevator-like devices became more common in monasteries and castles. These devices, often powered by hand or by animals, were used to transport goods and occasionally individuals between different levels of the structures. They were essential for the functioning of these buildings, enabling more efficient movement within the complex layouts typical of the time.

Industrial Revolution

The 19th century brought significant advancements in elevator technology. In 1823, Burton and Hormer designed and installed the first practical elevator in London. This innovation was soon followed by steam-powered elevators, which made vertical transportation more efficient and reliable. These advancements were pivotal in the transformation of urban landscapes, paving the way for taller buildings and more complex infrastructures.

Elisha Graves Otis demonstrates the first elevator.

Elisha Graves Otis (1811 – 1861) demonstrating his patent safety lift at the 1854 New York World’s Fair. (Image: Canva)

Elisha Otis and Safety

A monumental leap in elevator technology came in 1852 with Elisha Otis’s invention of the safety elevator. Otis’s innovation featured a safety mechanism that prevented the elevator from falling if the hoisting rope broke. His public demonstration of this technology in 1854, where he cut the elevator’s rope and the safety brake engaged, was a watershed moment. It not only showcased the reliability of his invention but also laid the groundwork for the construction of taller buildings, as people could now trust the safety of elevators.

Electric Elevators

The late 19th century saw the advent of electric elevators, which revolutionised vertical transportation. The electric motor made elevators faster, smoother, and more reliable than their steam-powered predecessors. This development was crucial for the rise of skyscrapers, as it allowed for more efficient and practical vertical movement within these tall structures.

Skyscrapers and Hydraulic Systems

With the advent of skyscrapers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hydraulic elevator systems became popular. These systems used pressurised fluid to lift the elevator car and were ideal for buildings up to around 30 stories. While hydraulic elevators were efficient, they had limitations in terms of height, prompting further innovations for even taller buildings.

Modern Era

The mid-20th century brought about significant advancements in elevator technology, including automatic operation and push-button controls. These innovations made elevators more user-friendly and efficient, significantly enhancing the convenience of vertical transportation in buildings of various heights and purposes.

High-Speed Elevators and Safety Features

Recent decades have witnessed the development of high-speed elevators capable of reaching astonishing speeds, enabling the construction of ever-taller buildings. Alongside speed, safety features have also advanced. Modern elevators are equipped with emergency brakes, redundant systems, and advanced monitoring technologies, ensuring the utmost safety for passengers.

Passenger lift with unique green moss wall interior with wooden features.

Green Elevators

In response to the growing focus on sustainability, eco-friendly elevator technologies have emerged. Regenerative drives, which capture and reuse energy during descent, and energy-efficient components, are among the innovations contributing to reducing the environmental impact of elevators. These green technologies are essential for sustainable urban development.

Future Trends

Elevator technology continues to evolve with promising developments such as magnetic levitation (maglev) and ropeless elevators. These innovations promise greater efficiency and flexibility in building design. Maglev elevators, for instance, eliminate the need for traditional cables, allowing for unprecedented freedom in vertical and even horizontal movement within buildings.

Elevator Safety Overview

Safety has been a paramount concern since the inception of elevators. Over the years, various safety mechanisms and regulations have been developed to ensure passenger safety and prevent accidents. Modern elevators are equipped with numerous safety devices and systems, making them one of the safest modes of transportation.

Safety Standards and Regulations

Elevators are subject to strict safety standards and regulations enforced by government agencies. These standards cover various aspects, including design, construction, installation, maintenance, and inspection of elevators. Adherence to these regulations is crucial for ensuring the safety and reliability of elevator systems.

Elevator Codes

Elevator safety codes, such as The Occupational Health and Safety Act (SANS 1545), provide detailed requirements for elevator design, installation, and operation. Compliance with these codes is essential for ensuring elevator safety. They cover a wide range of safety aspects, from the structural integrity of elevator shafts to the functionality of safety devices.

Safety Devices

Modern elevators are equipped with a variety of safety devices designed to protect passengers. These include:

  • Safety Brakes: Automatically engage if the elevator exceeds normal operating speed or if there is a loss of power.
  • Emergency Stop Button: Allows passengers to manually stop the elevator in case of an emergency.
  • Door Interlocks: Prevent the elevator from moving unless all doors are securely closed.
  • Overload Sensors: Detect when the elevator is carrying more weight than its capacity and prevent it from moving until the excess weight is removed.
  • Safety Gears: Engage in the event of a hoist rope failure, preventing the elevator from falling.
  • Emergency Communication: Systems like intercoms or phones allow passengers to call for help in case of an emergency.

Regular Inspections and Maintenance

Regular inspections and maintenance are crucial for ensuring that elevators remain in safe working condition. Qualified technicians inspect various components, including hoist ropes, brakes, electrical systems, and safety devices, performing necessary repairs and maintenance to keep the systems functioning correctly.

Training and Education

Elevator technicians and maintenance personnel undergo specialised training to ensure they have the knowledge and skills to maintain elevators safely. Additionally, building owners and operators receive training on elevator safety procedures and emergency protocols, ensuring a comprehensive approach to safety.

Emergency Preparedness

Building owners and operators develop and implement emergency preparedness plans that include procedures for safely evacuating passengers in the event of an elevator malfunction or other emergency. These plans are crucial for ensuring the safety of occupants and minimising risks during emergencies.

Commercial passenger lift.


The history of elevators is a testament to human ingenuity and the relentless pursuit of safety and efficiency in vertical transportation. From simple rope and pulley systems to sophisticated high-speed machines, elevators have significantly evolved, playing a crucial role in urban development. Ongoing advancements in technology and safety continue to enhance their reliability and sustainability, making them indispensable in modern life.


1. What was the first practical elevator? The first practical elevator was designed by Burton and Hormer in 1823 and installed in London.

2. How did Elisha Otis revolutionise elevator safety? Elisha Otis invented the safety elevator in 1852, featuring a safety mechanism that prevented the elevator from falling if the hoisting rope broke.

3. What are hydraulic elevators, and where are they commonly used? Hydraulic elevators use pressurised fluid to lift the elevator car and are commonly used in buildings up to around 30 stories.

4. How do regenerative drives in green elevators work? Regenerative drives capture and reuse energy generated during the elevator’s descent, contributing to energy efficiency and sustainability.

5. What are some future trends in elevator technology? Future trends include magnetic levitation (maglev) and ropeless elevators, which promise greater efficiency and design flexibility in buildings.

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