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On a recent trip, my son Ryan posed a question.  Why do we have escalators?  They’re just stairs but more expensive than stairs.  How did the escalator company convince a business that it should spend money on moving stairs?

Hmm.  That’s a good question.  So I added it to my list of things I should write about.  Today we will find out how it all went down.

The first escalator patent design was submitted in 1859 by Nathan Ames.  It was intended to be a way to make everyday life easier.  Ames envisioned it to be used by “the sick, aged, and infirmed” or by the rich, whose houses were too big to navigate without one. (Really?  If your house is too big to walk through perhaps you should find a smaller house! But I digress…) 

Subsequent similar patents were submitted by Leamon Souder in 1889 and Jesse Reno as well as George Wheeler in 1892.  The first working model was built by Reno at Coney Island and was a mere 6 feet tall.  It was an instant hit as a novelty with the crowds there.  It’s funny though to see different reactions recorded from the early days of escalators.  In Coney Island it was a hit, but apparently the more delicate department store shoppers across the pond fainted.  Fainted, you say?  Why, yes.  It was this little bit of history referenced on the wikipedia page about the first escalators  that gave me a chuckle.  “Noted by Bill Lancaster in The Department Store: a Social History, ‘customers unnerved by the experience were revived by shopmen dispensing free smelling salts and cognac.'”  Wheeler ultimately sold his patents to Charles Seeburger, who joined forces with Otis Elevator Company to produce a working model escalator for the 1900 Paris Exposition. The display was a complete success and talked about by all who attended the exposition.  Sold! Escalators were an attractive novelty in the age of growing industrialism. How fun and futuristic to not have to walk up the stairs!

So now we know why escalators first became a thing.  Thanks to the Industrial Revolution’s unofficial motto, “The more machines, the better!”, automated and motorized processes became widespread.  But do we still need escalators?  The novelty has worn off, right, so why do we still see them everywhere?  Escalators are designed to carry a specific number of people and should be built to handle the expected peak capacity.  They play a part in efficiently moving large numbers of people more efficiently.  Escalators move continuously, unlike elevators, and have a larger capacity than elevators in the same space.  So in that case I would say that they definitely serve a purpose in places like subway stations, sports stadiums, airports, etc.  Do we need one in our too-large-to-traverse house?  Probably not.  Our health would certainly be better served by taking the stairs, especially if it’s only one or two flights up.  Would we appreciate an escalator that can transport us 230 back up to the surface from the Wheaton station of Washington Metro subway system (the longest single-span escalator in the Western Hemisphere)?  Of course.

Innovation never dies though, and the future of escalators seems relatively assured.  The latest designs include the Central-Midlines system in Hong Kong which reverses direction to match the rush-hour pedestrian traffic flow and the seven-story spiral escalator at a mall in Shanghai.  While we no longer feel a sense of wonder upon viewing or riding an escalator, we can certainly appreciate the lift.

It turns out the answer is not as simple as I imagined it to be.

Before you go–

Youtube video that shows the inside workings of an escalator.

You have to watch to the end to see the best view but the video is only 30 seconds so I’m sure you can handle the suspense.  Also, be careful when you click over to watch because there are several other escalator videos.  Seriously – why are there so many videos of people (and dogs!) riding escalators?  You could spend hours riding virtual escalators!

Are you a podcast lover too? This fun episode gives a quick history of the escalator and the patent granted to Jesse Wilford Reno on March 15, 1892

Websites referenced in my research:

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