A Great Big City

March 23 in History: Elisha Otis Installs First Passenger Elevator

The E. V. Haughwout Building
The E. V. Haughwout Building via Michael Daddino on Flickr

New York is a city built on elevators, and the modern era of skyscrapers began on March 23, 1857 with the first installation of an elevator.

The E.V. Haughwout Building at the corner of Broadway and Broome was newly built and designed as a department store before the model even existed. While the exterior was composed of elaborate cast-iron façades, there was a revolution being constructed inside.

Mr. Haughwout was preparing to open a grand showroom of glass and porcelain products, but he knew that installing a brand-new invention would attract patrons into the store. Therefore, despite no practical need of an elevator, Mr. Haughwout installed a lift designed by Elisha Otis, which became the first passenger elevator installed in a commercial building.

Few details survive of that first elevator, and the newer elevator installed in 1892 is sometimes confused for the first, but was a completely new design installed by elevator manufacturer Alonzo B. See. The original Otis was powered by a steam engine and based on the new "safety elevator" technology that Elisha Otis had demonstrated at the Crystal Palace only three years earlier. Today's elevators use a relatively similar mechanical safety mechanism to prevent the car from dropping if the lifting cables are severed.

No information seems to exists on when the first elevator was removed, or if any parts survived the removal process.


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