Nowadays we don’t give it a second thought when we hop on an elevator to the upper floors of a tall building. But it wasn’t always so. For a very long time, people had to trudge up one flight of stairs after another – certainly a big reason why the skyscraper era did not begin until the late 19th century.
It must have been a real adventure for visitors at the Mannheim Trade Exhibition. An open platform carried a maximum of four passengers up 20 meters on a temporary viewing tower, and none of them could see what was driving it.
It was the first time an electric motor had ever powered such a “lift” – and at 1.8 kilometers per hour. The power source was housed underneath the platform, and cranked the elevator up by way of a gear system.
This, the world’s first electric elevator, had been developed by Werner von Siemens. In the aftermath of his 1866 discovery of the dynamo-electric principle, he turned his full attention to practical applications for his new technology.
One of his most famous conceptions was the first electric railway, which carried delighted visitors around a Berlin industrial exposition in 1879. But it’s less well known that the idea of an electric elevator came up at the same time – almost as a byproduct of the railroad design.
In June 1879, the company founder wrote to his brother Carl: “Incidentally, the railroad […] is now running very fast. It covers its 270-meter circular track in around 50 seconds, or about 5 meters per second. It quite unnerved the royal children yesterday. […] Perhaps something else might be added. The dynamo machine would be very suitable for elevators and for moving turntables at railroad stations.”
The pioneer of electricity soon had an opportunity to put his idea into practice. In April 1880, the organizers of the “Mannheim Pfalzgau Trade & Agricultural Exhibition” asked whether Siemens could build an electric elevator for their exhibition. Siemens accepted the commission, and work began shortly afterwards.
But as is often the case with pioneering efforts, the work took longer than expected. So when the exhibition opened in July, it still lacked its biggest attraction. Not until the end of August 1880 was the elevator installed in Mannheim.
A relieved Werner von Siemens wrote to Carl:
I’ve just heard that the electric elevator is running well. It’s a big draw at the exhibition!Werner von Siemens, 1880
There was immense public interest in the elevator – from September to mid-November, more than 8,000 people tried out the new means of transportation and enjoyed the panorama of Mannheim.
Inquiries about the new elevators came in thick and fast. Many hotels wanted to offer guests the convenience of the new technology.
But Siemens also got odd requests like one for a “Wishing Table,” possibly a table to be carried between floors for filling, somewhat like a dumb-waiter. Yet the Corporate Archives record that only one electric elevator was installed – on the Mönchsberg near Salzburg. So despite all the early interest, the electric elevator business apparently never took off.
But the initial enthusiasm for his electric elevator encouraged Werner von Siemens to find other areas where he could put electricity to use.
Dr. Florian Kiuntke
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