This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.
Electronic Highways

What Goes Up…

Published: February 17, 2011

After automobiles, what form of transportation carries the most people in the United States? Airplanes? Trains? Buses? The correct answer: elevators.

Every day in America, more than 325 million passengers are carried by elevators. Did you know that more than 85 percent of high-rise buildings in the U.S. have no 13th floor, and that New York City alone has more than 58,000 elevators? These and other fascinating facts about elevators and tall buildings can be found in the NOVA episode “Trapped in an Elevator.” Narrated by John Lithgow, “Trapped in an Elevator” begins with the story of New Yorker Nicolas White who was trapped in an elevator for 41 hours; the show then goes on to offer an extensive look at the engineering, history and future of elevators.

Soon after “Trapped” premiered on Nov. 2, 2010, NOVA started hearing from viewers who disagreed with the following statement made by elevator technician John Menville in the episode (Note: a New Yorker article “Up and then Down” includes a statement similar to Menville’s):

“As you’ll notice, there are a lot of buttons in the elevator. However, there’s one button that doesn’t work. The ‘door close’ button will not close the doors, no matter how many times you push it. Door close button does serve a function: it lets people think that they have some control over the elevator, although that’s not the case.”

To follow the ongoing “great elevator button debate” see Part 1 and Part 2. (You also may want to type the words “elevator door close button” into YouTube to see videos of folks making their own tests).

When is it appropriate to hold the elevator door open for someone? Where should I stand when entering an elevator? Is it rude to talk on my cell phone on an elevator? Elevator etiquette questions (lift etiquette, if British) such as these are covered at, Lift Manners and wikiHow. For a good example of how not to behave in an elevator, watch this “Buddy in the Elevator” scene from the movie “Elf.”

Leave it to Hollywood to play on people’s irrational fears about elevators. Several movies have malfunctioning elevators stranding passengers between floors: “Downtime” (1997), “The Elevator” (1974) and Ingmar Bergman’s “Secrets of Women” (1952). One of the more grisly films dealing with elevators has to be “De Lift” (1983), which has a possessed elevator killing off apartment dwellers in some pretty gory ways (this Dutch film was remade in the U.S. under the title “Down.”) On a lighter note, movies also have used elevators as a means of time travel (Time at the Top), as a way to fly through the air (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) and as a way to travel between planets (Dream One, aka Nemo).

The robustness of the elevator industry is based chiefly on the well being of the construction industry because new buildings need new elevators. The leading elevator company is Otis Elevator Co., which employs more than 61,000 people. The company had revenues of more than $11 billion in 2009, of which 80 percent was generated outside the United States. Other key players in the elevator industry include Schindler Elevator Corp., Kone Corp. and ThyssenKrupp Elevator. The major trade publication for the industry is Elevator World.

Those interested in the history of elevators and vertical transportation may want to check out the following books from the Architecture and Planning Library: “Going Up: An Informal History of the Elevator from the Pyramids to the Present” and “Vertical: Lift, Escalator, Paternoster: A Cultural History of Vertical Transport.

—Don Hartman, University Libraries