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The Elevator Shaft That Came Before The Elevator

The Cooper Union's Foundation Building in Lower Manhattan was completed in 1859. This large six-story brownstone building of Anglo-Italianate style featuring heavy, ornate, round-arched windows was the first building in the world that was designed to accommodate an elevator—four years before such an invention became available for passenger use. At that time, New York was growing vertically and Peter Cooper, the founder of Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science—one of America’s leading private college today—believed that soon people would need elevators to reach the higher floors. Indeed, the development of skyscrapers would not have been possible without elevators. Many architects and engineers of the time must have felt the same, but Peter Cooper—an inventor himself—was one of the first to act.

The Cooper Union's Foundation Building. Photo: el_cigarrito / Shutterstock.com

Cooper instructed his architect, Fred A. Petersen, to build a hollow shaft running the entire height of the building, accessible by doors on each level. The design might have appeared unsafe to many, but Cooper was confident that sooner or later someone would make a functioning elevator.

Cooper definitely had foresight, but he was not prophetic. Elevators have been around for a long long time, used to hoist goods and cargoes onto ships and up tall buildings. They were just not safe enough for hauling passengers yet. Winches failed regularly and cables snapped sending the load crashing to the ground. What was needed was a safety mechanism that would arrest the fall of the elevator if the cable was to break. Such a demonstration was made by Elisha Otis in 1854—a year after the Cooper Union's Foundation Building broke ground—at the Exhibition of Industry of All Nations in New York.

Peter Cooper

Otis installed a platform on guide rails on which he hoisted himself into the air before the onlookers. When the platform had risen to its maximum height, Otis severed the suspension cable. The crowd gasped, but the platform fell only a few inches before stopping securely in place. “All safe, gentlemen, all safe,” Otis assured the shocked spectators, and then explained how the safety brakes worked. In the years that followed, the Otis Elevator Company was swamped by orders for freight elevators.

Elisha Otis demonstrating his safety system, Crystal Palace, 1854.

Although Cooper’s prediction came true, and in a very short time, he didn’t get the shape right. Cooper’s elevator shaft was circular, because he felt that circle would enable the maximum loading capacity. But Otis's elevators were rectangular. So despite already having an elevator shaft, Cooper Union did not become the first building to get a passenger elevator. That would be the Haughwout Building at 488 Broadway, where the first passenger elevator was installed on March 23, 1857.

A few years later, Cooper’s son came to his rescue. Edward Cooper designed a round steam-powered elevator to fit in the shaft. This elevator functioned for forty years before it was replaced by an Otis electrically powered box-shaped elevator. It wasn’t until 1972, when architect John Hejduk created a special, round model for the building.

A view of the round elevator shaft.

References:
# The Institution of Engineering and Technology, https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2019/03/the-eccentric-engineer-how-the-elevator-shaft-came-before-the-elevator/ 
# POP Matters, http://www.popmatters.com/feature/178128-lifted-a-cultural-history-of-the-elevator/
# Cooper Archives, http://library.cooper.edu/archive/symbol/symbol5.html
# NY Times, https://www.nytimes.com/1972/12/20/archives/1859-cooper-union-building-shut-for-2year-renovation.html

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