A Short History of Elevators

What would Frankfurt‘s banking district be and would there be high-rise buildings like the Messeturm or the Commerzbank Tower without them? Elevators! They are the safest and most widely used means of transportation in the world during the day and therefore one of the most important means of transport in today’s society. Yet they are not just an invention of modern society, but look back on a history that stretches back to ancient Egypt.

“Flying Chair” - First Freight Elevators

It is assumed that the pyramids could not have been built without some kind of freight elevator. What is certain, however, is that Archimedes invented the first elevator in about 236 B.C. to carry water or building materials. This was operated by people, water or animals. In the first century AD, the first people were lifted, for example, in the Roman Colosseum or monastery in St. Barlaam in Greece.

Although the inventor of the bottle elevator is not known, this form of elevator is considered the forerunner of the modern elevator. In 1586, the engineer Domenico Fontana invented a bottle elevator that was capable of raising a 300-ton (!) obelisk in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. The first passenger elevator, also called a “flying chair,” was owned by King Louis XV around 1743, in which the passenger operated the elevator by pulling a cord on a pulley with counterweights. The invention of the steam engine then ushered in the birth of the modern elevator.


Elevator concept according to Konrad Kyeser (1405)

Up High! - The Development of the Modern Elevator System

Until the mid-19th century, elevators were considered dangerous. Moreover, they only reached seven stories. It was not until 1853 that the U.S. inventor Elisha Graves Otis introduced the first modern elevator that could even prevent a fall. With Otis’ invention, it was finally possible to build higher, and the skyscraper construction boom began.

Then, in 1857, the first Otis passenger elevator with safety function was put into service at 488 Broadway in a department store. Soon after, an Otis elevator was installed in the newly built Eiffel Tower. In 1880, the first electric elevator was introduced by Werner von Siemens. During the construction of the electric railroad, the idea of the electric elevator was born. The demand for electric elevators increased sharply, especially in hotels.


Elevators not only made working life easier. It can be assumed that they significantly accelerated the growth and further development of cities. To do this, you only have to imagine how much space New York would need to distribute today’s living and working space in Manhattan‘s skyscrapers if there were no elevators: It would be over 1 million square kilometers.

Today and Tomorrow - Elevators in the Future

To this day, the further development of the elevator has been accompanied by innovations. Parallel to this, the courage and will to build ever taller buildings grew, posing(e) new challenges for elevator technology. In 1992, the major elevator company Schindler introduced the Miconic 10 destination call control system. This made it possible to define the destination of the elevator before it started moving and, especially in the case of high traffic volumes, to assign elevators to persons with the same destination. A further fundamental development of the classic elevator was achieved by ThyssenKrupp in 2003. The company developed a system that reduces waiting times and allows two elevator cars in the same shaft to travel to all floors.

In addition to ThyssenKrupp Elevator and Schindler, there are around 900 other major companies in Germany, including Otis and Kone, without which Frankfurt‘s skyline would exist only in our minds, if at all. For example, the Schindler company is responsible for the elevators of the Omniturm in Frankfurt‘s banking district or Terminal 3 of Frankfurt Airport, which is currently under construction


Touch panel of an elevator in the Omnitower

And the future? In it, elevators will not only be able to travel vertically, but also horizontally. ThyssenKrupp will demonstrate this in the Edge East Side Tower in Berlin from 2023. In addition, the heights that can be reached by elevators are probably limitless for the time being: According to NASA, people could already travel into space in elevators in the near future.