Standing a mere six feet high and made of cast steel, Jesse Reno's "inclined elevator" must have looked plenty odd to people visiting Coney Island in the fall of 1896. Essentially a slow-moving single platform vertical conveyor belt, the invention carried people up a short rise to the island's Iron Pier.
This was more than just a way to move people around. Curiosity and excitement spread as crowds clamored to jump on the inclined elevator. In just over a week as a test project on Coney Island, Reno's invention garnered more than 75,000 riders. But his desire was more than just thrilling the public. Reno hoped to change the way people moved up (and down) in the world.
Today, escalators are a routine part of modern existence, moving people in nearly every mall, airport, mass transit station and stadium in the world. They're more efficient than elevators and more convenient than stairs. They're practical, user-friendly and (relatively) safe. They are Donald Trump's preferred way to make an entrance.
There was a day long ago, however, when somebody had the idea to make stairs move. While the first working escalator made its public debut as an attraction, this present-day convenience was a product of false starts, imaginative thinking, and a changing industrial world. Here's how the escalator went from thrilling riders to a mundane mover of humanity.
"Coney Island was kind of like the Silicon Valley of its day"
On the Move
The first person to design an escalator was Nathan Ames. Graduating from Harvard in 1848, Ames was a lawyer who wrote poetry about local pirate legends. He also invented, claiming 11 patents aimed at making daily life easier. There was a machine that made eyelets (lace holes) in leather shoes, a knife, fork, and spoon combo contraption, and a copying machine involving pens attached to wires. His most enduring patent, though, was the "Revolving Stairs."
The machine would allow people to "ascend and descend from one story of a building to another, without exerting any muscular strength," Ames wrote, thinking it would exist in private residences. Ames imagined the revolving stairs could benefit those who could not climb stairs on their own ("the sick, aged, and infirm") and the rich, whose houses proved too big to traverse on foot alone. As with the rest of his inventions, though, Ames never even tried to build an escalator. He may have been a lot of things, but Ames was no engineer.
It might not have worked anyway. "From a mechanical point of view, the design is pretty questionable," says Lee Gray, an architecture history professor at University of North Carolina-Charlotte who is writing a book about escalators. "If we were to build a model today, it probably wouldn't work... he had no idea how to hook a motor to it or what kind of engine could be used." So for the next three decades Ames' imaginative patent sat on the shelf, nothing more than a neat idea on paper.
The next crack at moving stairs came during the wave of technological changes that appeared as the world entered the final years before the new century. The Eiffel Tower premiered to an adoring public in 1889 and the first long distance electric power transmission in the United States was completed. George Eastman's Kodak camera was born, and Edison, Bell, Tesla, and Benz were active and inventing. In 1889, an amateur Philadelphia engineer named Leamon Souder earned a patent for his "The Stairway," a moving staircase that was linked by an "endless chain" and would be moved hydraulically or "by propelling power."
Like Ames, Souder never actually built his model. Yet "the stairway" was an idea more advanced in its real engineering, as Souder described his invention in a manner that made it plausible using the new technologies of the day.
Seven years later, Jesse Reno took the next step.
Coney Island Innovation
We remember the Coney Island of yesteryear as more getaway spot than tech conference-more Disneyland Lite than Silicon Valley East. Coney Island as a destination for New Yorkers dates back to the 1820s, when the first hotels were built. By the 1870s, it was attracting up to 30,000 people in a single weekend. But with that many people coming through, it was the perfect place to debut new technologies for business-minded inventors.
"Coney Island was kind of like the Silicon Valley of its day," Charles Denson of the Coney Island History Project tells Popular Mechanics. "People were coming there to be amused and amazed." Many people's first exposure to modern inventions happened at Coney Island, including the roller coaster, large-scale electric lighting, and baby incubators. For Jesse Reno, Coney Island was a great place to show off his inclined elevator He was not only giving people a thrill, but showing prospective investors-the venture capitalists of the 1800s-that it actually worked.
Born during the Civil War in Kansas, Reno moved east and attended the prestigious engineering school at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Inspired by the school being on the side of a mountain, Reno began work on the invention that would change how people moved up in the world. He submitted a patent in 1892, but unlike his predecessors, Reno was a trained engineer who could design and build.
Unlike modern escalators, Reno's "inclined elevator" was a single vertical platform rather than steps. It moved upwards of 3,000 people per hour and was "manifestly superior to vertical elevators... because people are handled by it continuously and without delay and no attendant is required." Fitted with moving handrails to ensure people could steady themselves as they moved upwards, it was powered by either a dynamo or a direct connected electric motor making it go a pokey speed of 90 feet per minute (humans walk at about 270 feet per minute). In terms of safety, it was assured that those concerns were non-issues due to a series of shallow rubber landings and a comb platform that prevented clothes from getting caught.
"It's too bad wonder of that kind is lost today"
With the big show and tell at Coney Island, Reno hoped to impress a variety of prospective buyers, from the operators of Boston's subway to the trustees of the recently-built Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge trustees bought in and, Gray says, they had Reno install his "inclined elevator" as a proof-of-concept, providing access to the elevated train platform on the bridge. According to a New York Times article published when the new invention was first installed, citizens were understandably hesitant to ride the ultra-modern contraption. But after Reno, a "large policemen," and a brave women (who had been pushed onto the thing) showed it was safe to ride, crowds poured on.
The "Escalator" Is Born
Following Reno's New York debut, improvements on his invention began showing up across the world. The explorer George Wheeler actually registered a patent around the same time as Reno, and his design featured actual steps like the escalators of today. He never built it. An enterprising man named Charles D. Seeberger bought the patent from Wheeler, naming the machine the "escalator"-effectively taking the Latin word for steps, "scala," and forming a sort of portmanteau with "elevator."
Seeberger joined forces with Elisha Otis and his famed elevator company to produce a working model of his escalator for the 1900 Paris Exposition. Looking more like a modern escalator than Reno's version and coming complete with steps, a truss, and a track system, this design truly moved Paris. Gray says the demonstration was golden because it not only displayed the technology, but helped to move around visitors and alleviate foot traffic. "When you read about the 1900 Paris Exposition in articles and periodicals from the time, everyone was talking about.... the moving stairs."
Sooner than you can ride to the second floor, the escalator was embraced the world over. By 1911, Reno's own company installed more than 20 escalators from Toronto to Seattle to Boston (including a design for a spiral escalator in London that may have never been built). Otis bought out Reno and his patent, becoming the world's leader in both escalators and elevators. By 1920, Otis had installed 350 escalators across the world, mostly in department stores and mass transit systems, including the famed wooden ones at Macy's flagship store in Manhattan which are still carrying customers up and down today.
Today there are escalators for bicycles, exceedingly long escalators, and spiral escalators, all of which would have been wild to image more than a century ago when people first laid eyes and feet upon Jesse Reno's six-foot inclined elevator and were filled with joy and awe. "In some ways, it is too bad that wonder of that kind is lost today," Gray says. "How amazing that really was at that time. 'I don't have to walk upstairs.' How cool is that?"