An eye for an i #389 Children

An amusement ride turns into escalator

Escalators at Amagerbro Metro Station in Copenhagen, Denmark.   | Photo Credit: Stig Nygaard/ Wikimedia Commons

Every time you visit a shopping mall or a metro station (if your city has one), one aspect of it that you can’t fail to notice are the escalators that take you from one floor to another. These places are also provided with an elevator, but I bet most of you would rather be out there on an escalator, than inside an elevator.

A number of people have been involved in the development of what we see as escalators in the modern day. Even though the idea came about in the middle of the 19th Century, it was only by the end of the century that we had our first working models. The first working escalator, which came about as an amusement ride, was courtesy of American inventor Jesse W. Reno.

Reno’s idea

Reno was born in Kansas in 1861 and spent his early life in the mid-western and southern states of the U.S. After moving with his family to Georgia when he was 16, he started making his first plans of an inclined elevator.

He graduated from Lehigh University’s emergent engineering programme in 1883 and got to work with a mining company and then an electrical company. He moved to New York soon enough, the stage for his strong ambition and aptitude in engineering.

It was in the final decade of the 19th Century that Reno came up with his invention, which had a conveyor belt inclined at an angle of 25 degrees. The conveyor belt had planks of metal with a serrated surface and the design allowed for a smooth transition, especially in the top and bottom landings where people had to get on and off. The overall contraption provided the passenger with an added sense of security by having handrails that moved with the conveyor belt.

Patents “inclined elevator”

Reno received the patent for his “inclined elevator” on March 15, 1892. He didn’t meet with success immediately though. He had a huge professional setback when his extensive plans to New York City officials were turned down. These plans included building a double-decker subway system beneath the city’s streets, with his inclined elevators transporting passengers from the street to the underground station and vice versa.

In the end, Reno had to agree to his inclined elevator appearing as an amusement ride. One of the world’s first working models of an escalator thus appeared at the Old Iron Pier, Coney Island, New York as a temporary amusement ride. With a vertical rise of 2.1 m (7 feet) and the belt moving at a rate of 22.8 m (75 feet) per minute, the ride attracted an estimated 75,000 people during the fortnight-long installation.

Features still remain

Within years of showcasing it thus, Reno’s invention was finding its way into railway stations and department stores. Reno started his own company to manufacture them after the turn of the century and it was later bought out by Otis Elevator Company, that also got the rights to Reno’s patents.

It was Otis that came up with the name “escalator” – combining the words “elevator” and “scala” (the Latin word for steps) – for their own invention that worked similarly. When the term turned out to be popular with the larger masses to refer to all such machines as a whole, it came into generic public use.

The strength of Reno’s invention lies in the fact that many features of his inclined elevator are still found in modern escalators. Be it the comb of projecting fingers at each end of the machine or the rubber-covered chain handrail that moves in sync with the steps, they were all envisioned by Reno for the very first working model of an escalator.

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Printable version | Sep 25, 2021 9:12:58 PM |

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