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The first escalator: Traumatized customers given cognac in order to revive them after their ‘ordeal’

Goran Blazeski

Shopping malls, airports, railway stations, hotels, arenas, and stadiums wouldn’t be quite the same without their escalators. These moving stairs are a great alternative to elevators in that they have the capacity to move a large number of people from one area to another.

It is said that the origins of the escalator can be traced back to the ancient times when an earlier version was used in the building of the Egyptian Great Pyramid at Giza. However, the modern escalator as we know it today was patented in 1859, by a man named Nathan Ames of the state of Michigan, United States. Ames’ U.S. Patent No. 25,076 began:

“Be it known that I, Nathan Arms, of Saugus, in the county of Essex and Commonwealth of Massachusetts, have invented a new and useful Improvement in Stairs, which I call Revolving Stairs; and I do hereby declare that the following is a full, clear, and exact description of the construction and operation of the same, reference being had to the accompanying drawings forming a part of these specifications…”

“…The nature of my invention consists in arranging steps, or stairs, upon an inclined endless belt, chains, or ropes, or in attaching the stairs or steps together by links or joints so as to form an endless inclined flight of steps or stairs, which are placed on, over, or around, rollers, so that the stairs or steps shall serve as elevators, when motion is transmitted to the rollers…”

Unfortunately, Ames died in 1860, and the invention, which he called the “Revolving Stairs,” was never put into practical use.

Illustration from U.S. Patent #25,076: Revolving Stairs. Issued August 9, 1859, to Nathan Ames.

Illustration from U.S. Patent #25,076: Revolving Stairs. Issued August 9, 1859, to Nathan Ames.

Jesse W. Reno patented the first working type of escalator known as “Endless Conveyor or Elevator” in 1892. Five years later, he installed it as an amusement ride at Coney Island, New York, in 1897. During that decade George Wheeler patented a flat step escalator that allowed people to stand upright as they moved between floors, though it was never built.

Charles Seeberger bought Wheeler’s patent in 1898 and joined the Otis Elevator Company where he developed the first step-type moving stairway. He is also credited with the creation of the word ‘escalator’ that combines the Latin word for ‘stairway’, being ‘scala’, with ‘elevator’.

The longest escalators in the Western Hemisphere, at Wheaton station, Washington DC Metro.

The longest escalators in the Western Hemisphere, at Wheaton station, Washington DC Metro.

The early French manufacturer, Piat, would invent a “step-less” escalator and on November 16, 1898, it was installed it at London’s Harrods store. It was England’s first “moving staircase” and it was something that had never been seen or experienced before in England.

The escalator installed at London’s Harrods store used a continuous leather belt made from 224 pieces linked together that traveled in an upward direction. Many people that visited Harrods the day when the escalator was introduced for the first time believed that it might discombobulate their inner workings and were really quite disturbed.

Stockholm, Sweden metro station. Photo Credit

Stockholm, Sweden metro station. Photo Credit

The escalator was a big deal in Victorian England and a trip on it was a very strange and scary experience for Londoners. Traumatized customers were offered free smelling salts and cognac at the top by Harrods staff in order to revive them after their ‘ordeal’.

The newspapers described the first escalator in England as a remarkable substitute for the ordinary elevator and also described the experience as fascinating. The press recommended the escalator for general use in railway stations, public buildings, hotels, warehouses and more.

The short escalator in Westfield Garden State Plaza, Paramus, New Jersey

The short escalator in Westfield Garden State Plaza, Paramus, New Jersey

It’s been nearly 120 years since the traumatized customers in London’s Harrods store experienced the escalator for the first time. Today, they are everywhere, just as the press recommended, back in 1898. They are one of the most popular inventions and are used all over the world.

Read another story from us: Lester B. Pearson – the Canadian who introduced the publicly funded system of universal health care and the Maple Leaf flag

The longest escalators in the world are installed in the deep underground stations of Saint Petersburg Metro. They are 449 feet (137 m) long and 225 feet (68.5 m) high.