elevator, in machinery, device for transporting people or goods from one level to another. The term is applied to the enclosed structures as well as the open platforms used to provide vertical transportation in buildings, large ships, and mines; it is also applied to devices consisting of a continuous belt or chain with attached buckets for handling bulk materials.

Simple hoists were used from ancient times. From about the middle of the 19th cent., power elevators, often steam-operated, were used for conveying materials in factories, mines, and warehouses. In 1853 the American inventor Elisha G. Otis demonstrated a freight elevator equipped with a safety device to prevent falling in case a supporting cable should break. This increased public confidence in such devices and served as an impetus to the industry. Otis established a company for manufacturing elevators and patented (1861) a steam elevator.

After the introduction by Sir William Armstrong of the hydraulic crane (1846), the hydraulic principle was applied to the elevator, and in the early 1870s hydraulic machines began to replace the steam-powered elevator. The hydraulic elevator is supported by a heavy piston, moving in a cylinder and operated by the water (or oil) pressure produced by pumps. As improvement of design made increased speed of movement possible, various safety devices, such as speed governors, were developed. Toward the end of the 19th cent., electric elevators came into use, and operation by electric motor gradually became the chief method. Later improved safety devices were added, and automatic and partly automatic elevators were introduced. Increase in speed of operation and improvement in general design and materials also characterize the more modern elevators.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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