Six Stories

Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

This week, we have a story from our friend, Nate Dimeo of The Memory Palace. The subject is right in our wheelhouse so I thought you’d like it. Enjoy.

Narrator: Elevators are old. They would have to be because it is in our nature, right? To rise. So history, even ancient history is thick with things that lift other things; ropes and platforms and weights and pulleys with people to pull them. When the slaves of Rome were served up to the wild beasts of the Colosseum, other slaves pushed the wheels that pulled the ropes that lifted the platforms that sent them up from the darkness below ground, up into the sun in the roar of the crowd into the lions. In China, in Hungary, in Mont-Saint-Michel, one can find monks and kings and courtesans and construction materials and meals fit for queens and sorted consorts rising up while some slave or servant or caged animals somewhere pulled on some rope or push some piece of wood around and around and around. One man in France spent the year 1743 inside a chimney waiting for a bell to ring so he could pull a rope through a pulley and hoist King Louis XV up in the flying chair from the ground to his bedroom balcony rather than have him walk up a single flight of stairs.

Elijah Otis was too sick for the family business. He was a good looking kid and smart as a whip but he was kind of weakling. When he was 19 he moved away from the family farm in Vermont to figure out something to do for a living. Something where he wouldn’t have to exert himself. Sell anything bought or processed. Processed anything, sold, bought or processed or lift heavy things. He wound up in a furniture factory where he and his co-workers spend their days sanding curves and decorative knobs into bedposts. Otis spent his nights designing a better way to do it. He invented a machine, a kind of lathe that sped up the process. It increased output and made the men’s jobs a little easier. Did open up the aesthetic possibilities of the bedpost in new thrilling ways, knobs upon knobs upon knobs upon knobs. His boss was so impressed that he took him off the floor and made him head engineer of the Maize and Burns bed factory of Yonkers, New York. So Otis got to work trying to solve one of the biggest problems in the place. The factory had a lift; it had an elevator. A lot of factories were starting to have them then. These were simple machines. Just picture a platform that can be pulled off the ground up to a second story on a chain or set of cables or ropes. Sometimes the ropes will be pulled by a steam power winch but the one in the Maize and Burns bed factory Yonkers New York was pulled by a draft horse. In one day that horse is pulling on the rope which is pulling the wooden platform loaded with lumber and tools up to the second floor and the rope snapped. The platform plummeted, dropping 15 feet slamming down onto the floor and onto one of the men below sending its cargo careening, smashing into the scattering workers.

Just a few years later, in 1843, Elijah Otis stood on a wooden platform 30 feet off the ground. The elevator was loaded with lumber and tools and barrels just like the one had been that day in Yonkers. Down below on the floor, stood hundreds of gentlemen and ladies who didn’t want to spend their night out on the town being crushed by construction equipment. They had come to the Crystal Palace Exhibition to see the gathered wonders of the world. A massive structure of steel and glass had risen in Manhattan where Bryant Park is today. It was America’s first World’s Fair, and New York was psyched. The gentlemen and ladies after walking through the sculpture gardens and the art galleries found themselves in a great hall filled with industrial equipment. While they stood on the floor of the main hall, moonlight streaming through the glass roof craning their necks to see Otis and his elevator floating in air. They may not have known that they were looking at the future because they had seen elevators before. And seen one inventor after another come up with some new way to get from one floor to another so he was one more. Admittedly, he was higher than they’d seen before, up 3 stories instead of two. But there was no way this thing is going to catch on because who in their right mind was going to ride a 3-story elevator? Fall from the second floor, break your leg. Fall from the third, you break your neck. So they watched Otis and watched his son nearby raise a sword and then bring it down like an executioner slicing the rope that held up the platform. The audience screamed and then they cheered.

Elijah Otis didn’t invent the elevator. He invented the break. The little metal piece that catches the car and stops it from plummeting if the cable that holds it up stops holding it up. Elijah Otis didn’t invent the elevator but his sons kind of invented the modern world. The Otis brothers convinced the world to aim higher. The tallest buildings back in the 19th century, the tallest buildings that weren’t churches or lighthouses, which were all show off-y spires anyway… were just a few stories tall. In part, these buildings were held down by the lack of engineering know how but just as much, they were held down by stairs. People could only climb so many. So the brothers Otis came up with a killer sales pitch, higher was better. They targeted hotels first and convinced them to turn the idea of luxury quite literally, upside down. Before the elevator, the best rooms are on the bottom floor. You didn’t have to walk. Stairs were for suckers but the Otis brothers convinced hotels, it should be the other way around. The first floors are the one on the street with the hoi polloi and their noise and their sweat and their fruit carts stinking in the sun. And worst, the horses, and the things horses do. Wasn’t a king’s throne suppose to be higher than his servants? Wasn’t a Lord suppose to lord over? Why shouldn’t the wealthy traveler be above it all? The hotels bit, and they built high and the wealthy travelers liked the view. When it came time for them to build their next office building, they built higher still and they bought from the Otis Elevator company.

Buildings grew. 3 stories to 4 to 6 and the elevators grew better and faster to the delight of passengers who love the thrill ride of hurtling 70 feet at speeds of 600 feet per minute up to the penthouse, on the 7th floor. But though the Otis safety elevator relieved them of the fear of falling to their dooms, it created a new concern. One ginned up in the papers and in the esteemed pages of the Scientific American which warned of the horrors of something called elevator sickness. Acute dizziness and nausea owed to the specious fact that when an elevator comes to a stop, not all of your organs stop at the same time. The best way to combat this it seems, was to brace your head up against the ceiling of the elevator as it came to a stop so all of you stopped at the same time. The regional headquarters of the Otis Elevator Company in my hometown is a one-story building. I just always thought it was kind of funny. At another world’s fair in Chicago in 1870, a crowd gathered to watch a dramatic demonstration of the latest in elevator safety technology. Earlier that year, a 7-story building in New York became the tallest in the world. It had every architect and every illustrator in this Sunday’s Circulars drawing up visions of the cities of the future with gleaming towers climbing, soaring 11 and even 14 stories. The people had grown to trust the Otis break at 4 and 5 stories, what would happen if something happened and you were up there scraping the sky? So the fair-goers went out to a field where another inventor had constructed a temporary elevator shaft. This one 109 feet tall and they watched as passengers climbed to the top and stepped inside. They watched as someone cut the rope to the elevator and it dropped plummeting for a few exhilarating seconds before it came to a slow stop, cushioned by a pocket of compressed air.

Then the crowd politely applauded. The outcome never having really been in doubt. What would the wonders American inventors were coming up with all the time? Really, they had seen this trick at a World’s Fair before. They may have been more excited however, had they known that the same technique had been tested in secret in Boston not long before. When the elevator car holding 8 volunteers dropped on command, the air pressure in the shaft that was supposed to cushion its descent blew out the walls of the elevator shaft leaving nothing to stop the free-falling car but Massachusetts soil. Many bones were broken. Lives passed before our eyes. All 8 of them nearly died. Something the 8 volunteers who climbed into the elevator in Chicago hadn’t been told. The Burj Khalifa Tower rises 2,722 feet above the desert in Dubai. It has history’s tallest and fastest elevator, an Otis. It travels 30 feet a second taking you 124 floors in about a minute. Reviewers have called the experience mildly exhilarating.

Roman: Six stories first appeared on The Memory Palace podcast by Nate DiMeo. A couple of years ago, we commissioned another piece from The Memory Palace, I called it, A Bridge to the Sky. Nate called it, A Stretch. So while we’re here talking about how great the Memory Palace is, I thought I’d play that one for you too.

Nate: Bradford Gilbert had spent his career close to the ground. At 23, he took a job as the architect for the New York, Lake Erie & Western Railroad. It was 1878. The Western was basically just Western New York and just left at Lake Erie where Gilbert walked bridges and dells, mapped its contours and calculated its slopes and rises. Built bridges and trestles and new ways to go over the river and through the woods. New routes for coming round mountains. As an older man, he would redesign Grand Central Station but his early 20’s saw him designing less Grand buildings in less Central locations, in Avon, in Hornellsville, in Oyster Bay and Toms River and Essex-Falls. The places you waited to get places where things actually happened. But buy a ticket there for Manhattan or St. Louis and you could see other architects building more impressive things. You could disembark and marvel at 6 and 8 and 10 stories structures. Mammoth buildings of stone and brick in wrought iron holding court on whole city blocks, like medieval fortresses made for the kings of the modern American insurance industry. The emperors of imports and exports. One of these was looking to expand his empire. John Noble Sterns had made a lot of money importing silk and he was looking to make a lot more in real estate. He bought some land in a prime location of 50 Broadway. It was the perfect place for a new office building. Right downtown near the ports, in the heart of the growing financial industry but there was a problem. The lot was less than 22 feet wide. There are rules that dictate what you can build and how. Rules of physics and rules of men who sit on various bureaucratic boards and bodies. Those rules dictated that if Sterns wanted to build one of those 10-story office towers that were all the rage in 1888, he would need to build walls of stone and brick that were 5 feet thick with itty-bitty windows and that left room for an interior that was only 11 feet wide. Slice off a few feet for a hallway, a few for a bathroom, a couple for a coat closet and other for some filing cabinets and an umbrella stand. He would be asking the quintessential modern titan of American industry to work in the dark cell, better suited for a monk illuminating a manuscript.

Sterns asked all the best architects for a solution. They had built medieval bell towers come Manhattan bank headquarters. They had made midtown hotels that look like mountain fortresses but what Sterns wanted was a flagstaff. What Sterns wanted was a blade of grass and they weren’t in the blade of grass building business. They told him it couldn’t be done. Everyone except Bradford Gilbert, the in-house architect for the New York Lake Erie & Western Railroad had an idea. Even the simplest train trip between two of his backwater stations often required stunning feats of engineering. Hundreds of tons of cars and cargo hurtle over thin trestles and bridges everyday. What if he turned one of his bridges on its head? What if he used one of the steel frames that so capably carried trains and built it up instead of out? He told Sterns that if he did this, the walls wouldn’t have to be 5 feet thick; they could be 9 inches. And in the 20-foot wide office spaces that, that would create, the quintessential modern titan of American industry would have room to stretch out his legs. While, he made out of his rent check to John Noble Sterns. They would call it, The Tower Building. Sterns love the idea, for a while. Until people started telling him it was completely bananas. First, he heard it from business associates, people looking out for his investment. Then it was the press, that called the project and the men behind it, idiotic. Architects came in from all over the country to watch the tower building rise, to pour over Gilbert’s blueprints. They all pretty much agreed, Gilbert and Sterns were idiots. The walls were just too thin. The foundation was too narrow. Sure, those quintessentially modern men could stretch out their legs in sunny 24 wide offices stacked up like cardboard boxes. But they could also be crushed to death when the first stiff wind came and blew the building down. Sterns asked Gilbert to change the plans and he refused. He said he was so confident in his design that he would move his offices to the top two floors of the building. If the building blew down, he would have the farthest to fall and the longest time to consider his mistakes before he slammed into the pavement.

The first stiff winds of a hurricane blew into Manhattan on a Sunday morning in 1889. The tower building stood nearly complete and people lined the streets to watch it tumble. By late morning, the crowd numbered in the hundreds. The curious, the morbid, the newspaper men who are professionally both. And as the wind roared, a man pushed through the crowd. He walks the base of the tower to a construction ladder and begin to climb. When Bradford Gilbert reached the top of his tower, the wind whipped through its skeleton frame at more than 80 miles an hour. It was too strong for him to stand in the girders that crossed in the center of what he hoped would someday be his penthouse office. It was too strong to look down at the crowd who were probably placing bets on whether he would die by being blown off the building or simply in the crushing force of its collapse. But he crawled out to the center of the building and pulled from a bag a rope with a lead weight attached to one end. He tied the other end to a girder and tossed the weight down through the empty floors below. When he got to the ground, he looked up and saw the lead weight hanging in mid air stock still. Held up by a building that wasn’t going anywhere. The next day, the papers called Gilbert an idiot. In this time, he probably deserved it. They admitted his idea was genius, and for years after, Gilbert could sit in his penthouse office in the tower building and he could look out of his large window, stretch out his legs and watch a whole city stretching ever higher as it took his idea and built on it.

Roman: The Memory Palace by Nate DiMeo. The Memory Palace is just one of the fine offerings from Jesse Thorn’s maximum fund network including Bullseye, Judge John Hodgman, My Brother, My Brother and Me, all kinds of great stuff. Plus they just launched 5 new shows this week and as a monthly contributor, that makes me very, very happy. Check them out at Maximum fund dot org; 99% Invisible is Sam Greenspan, Avery Trufelman and me, Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 local public radio, KALW in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco.

  1. matteatscookies

    The link to maximumfun is broken. Also this show was great and got me hooked on the memory palace, so thanks.

  2. Tapsucker

    Are you from Toronto? I have always laughed when passing by the old Otis building here. Yes, it’s one story.

  3. Good show but could have done without hearing all the phlegm gurgling in Nate’s voice. A cough button and some editing or extra takes could easily fix this and would make you sound more like a skilled broadcaster and less like an amateur.

  4. I agree, the phlegm was insulting. Out of respect for the listener…clear your throat.

    Also, another “sound-byte of disrespect” from this dude was his snarky comment about how lighthouses and church spires are just “show-off-y” as if their height has zero functional value. I’ll spare the diatribe, but simply put, “The height of the lighthouse saves you by leading you away from the light, the church spire saves you by leading you TO the light”.

    Roman, I know you have a lot going on right now, but please exercise a bit more discretion when delegating a segment to others.

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