Why The Elevator Shaft Was Invented Before The Elevator

Why The Elevator Shaft Was Invented Before The Elevator

The world’s first elevator shaft was installed four years before
the elevator was invented, which sounds ridiculous. But inside this building, the Cooper Union Foundation Building
in New York City, is the world’s first elevator shaft, the first time a building was constructed to have a space for an
elevator top to bottom. Because when this was being
designed in the 1850s, the architect and owner
looked at New York City just starting to sprawl
wider and rise higher and they predicted,
“Someone is going to invent “a safe passenger elevator soon.” Four years later, Elisha Otis
did just that. But that prediction wasn’t quite perfect. – I think the remarkable thing
about the Foundation Building is that Peter Cooper first recognised
that he needed to build a building, and then that he would figure out
what he wanted to do with it. There were principles
that he was committed to. One was free education to the
working-class people of New York. He established a free reading room
before there were public libraries; also, the largest interior space
in New York City in which to hold lectures and debates, also open for free
to the general public. Peter Cooper’s vision was both for a very
radical, progressive institution, but he wanted embedded in the building
radical new technologies and ideas. So, by this time, by 1850, New York City was still really, really
crowded and dense. But the grid of Manhattan
had already been laid out. The Manhattan grid was
established in 1811, so everyone in New York City understood
that New York City was going to grow, and it was growing, in the middle
of the century, exponentially. In fact, the population of
Manhattan would peak in 1910, and we still have not reached the density and the high population that
the city had at that time. So, Peter Cooper knew that the city
had to be able to grow outward, but it also had to be able to grow upward. And so, he knew the elevator was coming. At the same time, Elisha Otis, who we all know from the
Otis Elevator Company, was busy working on not
inventing an elevator, because the elevator had
been in use for centuries to move equipment, to move goods. What Otis understood was that elevators would never be used for
people until they were safe. So, what he was working on doing
is to invent the safety elevator. That’s happening in 1855. The Foundation Building
meanwhile is under construction. So, Peter Cooper knew this was coming. The only thing nobody knew was what would be the
shape of the elevator cab, and Peter Cooper bet on circular. Since it’s the most efficient way,
spatially, to put the most number of
people in the smaller shaft and to carry them vertically. Little did he know that
that was not going to be the conventional elevator cab shape. And so, this was the first elevator shaft
that was constructed, we think, worldwide, certainly in the city, but it was not the first
functioning elevator. And the elevator cab that was
ultimately put in this shaft was square, so it was literally a
square peg in a round hole. The building was renovated, really,
from top to bottom on the inside in 1975. The architect, John Hejduk,
makes sure that the round shaft is really floating in the space. And the other thing he does is
he makes a companion elevator diagonally across the floor,
which is a square elevator. Always thought that
that was a beautiful way to allow architecture
to speak across time. Peter Cooper’s intuition
that the shape would be round was not what the market
would carry forward. When you’re thinking ahead of your time, sometimes you will guess correctly
and sometimes you won’t. But taking the risk to
actually invent something new and to build it into a building, I think, is really an innovative idea. – Is it worth the risk of
making that sort of prediction when it is basically just a gamble? Given what hassle a round
elevator shaft turned out to be, was it worth it?
Or would it have been better to wait and then retrofit a
regular elevator in later, like every other building from that era? And here’s a bigger question: What should we be designing for now? Not just in buildings, but anywhere. What’s the thing that
is going to seem obvious in 20 or 30 years but no
one can see coming now? I don’t know.
Maybe you do.


  1. If you're browsing YouTube in English (UK), then the title and description of this video will say "Lift": otherwise "Elevator". Unfortunately, I can't make the same changes to the video.

  2. Not actually an invention per se, but depending on the city… probably a very robust system of water pumps, tunnel complex, bunkers, air filters, tuned mass dampers, earthquake shock absorbers and enough rooms for self sufficient systems for vertical farming, waste treatment, etc. 😛
    Plus, you know, everything necessary for a robust battery system and solar panel installation.
    Big routing pipes everywhere. Because wireless is just unreliable.
    And perhaps make everything modular.

    For buildings with the future in mind I mean.

  3. You want to design a building for the future? Stick cable ducts everywhere. I don't know what the future will bring, but it's likely to involve either new cables or new pipes, so make sure there's an easy way to retrofit them.

  4. We have an increasing population but also an increasing population density, and as new housing estates are built, I think that insufficient infrastructure is being put in place for public transport. Which is fine now when most people can comfortably own a car, but as density increases and oil becomes more expensive, we're going to see a swing back to public transport. It's already happening with the resurgence of tram networks in many major cities. And in a lot of places we're going to find we haven't left space for it all.

  5. I always love how you don't just show something interesting, but put it into an even more interesting context!

  6. Tom , I really like watching your videos!! Always something new to learn and very interesting facts and trivia!!! Well done 👍 and keep up the good work!!!

  7. I find it absolutely fascinating that university buildings generally don‘t have enough or any power outlets because no one could possibly predict the number that are needed today.

  8. This reminds me of the buildings that thought Elevators, since they were being retrofitted and were taking out rooms, not to mention that they used a counter weight balance system, thought why not make sitting rooms that travel up and down the building. It is too bad at the time that they tried to do this they all discovered that the safety brake and the competing de-accelerator couldn't handle the sudden drop that would kick in the safety features and would destroy them. I used to like all these concept designs that were put out that looked like a Victorian Library or a Sitting Room in an upper class home.

  9. I love the idea of designing for the future. The construction industry is starting to catch up with technology and with BIM, digital twins and internet of things new things are coming.

  10. Specific easy-access channels in the walls the the building for "something". Back in the day maybe this something would have been the futuristic looking pneumatic tube mail networks, maybe now water, or hydrogen, or something we haven't learned to capture yet, or perhaps we'll just use it for power and internet outlets without having to dig into walls.

  11. An interesting application of this is in old city centres. There's very limited parking because no one expected cars to become so popular (or to exist at all), so buildings were not designed with a lot of parking spaces in mind. Although I wonder if any old buildings actually did incorporate plentiful parking space despite not having many cars at the time.

  12. 2:17 – “…not inventing the elevator because the elevator had been in use for centuries”

    So this elevator shaft wasn’t built before the invention of the elevator. :

  13. I would have liked to know more about Otis's invention of the "safety elevator" vs. the normal version that was deemed not safe for people? Especially the constructional differences and details, what makes an elevator safe for people (especially since the cabin can still fall if the cables were destroyed, and to my knowledge, there is no breaking mechanism as it is seen on the turbolifts of the USS Enterprise in the TNG episode "Disaster").

  14. Things we should design our buildings for:
    * Reusable building materials, so that the next building would not be built with all-new concrete (a significant source of CO₂)
    * Receptacle that will accept packages and keep them safe when you're not home to receive them
    * Central air-conditioning, with filters against pollution and pollen, with air humidifier/de-humidifier built-in — that process the air when it is entering and leaving the house instead of separate floor-units that are loud, inefficient and ineffective because they process a fraction of the same air in the room over and over
    * Cellar that is water-proof, so that all stuff you stored there isn't destroyed in the next flash flood
    * Roofs that lead water away (as opposed to roofs designed by "modernists", which always leak …)
    * Walls that block noises from your neighbour's bathroom (…)

  15. The Cooper [Institute] Union building is more widely known for an event within months of its completion; the February 27, 1860 speech by a little known Republican candidate for president.

  16. When are glass doors, emergency exits, air vents, and communication devices going to be standard elements of all new elevators built?
    Sincerely, a claustrophobic

  17. I'm looking at buying a house in a new housing development. It's very forward thinking. It's walk-able and energy efficient. Everyone is required to have high efficiency heat pump water heaters. But nobody has thought about charging electric vehicles.

  18. Both of my parents are alumni of The Cooper Union! In fact, just the other day I was visiting for a School of Engineering open house, and my dad told me this exact story.

  19. Undemocratic remoaners rooms, known as gulags at the moment, but that might offend the Russians, so we have to have an alternative name.

  20. Wait a minute this isn't true at all the Romans had lifts in the amphitheatres for lifting animals, gladiators and scenery into the arena on que.

  21. I'm curious how the world will react to the death of youtube, facebook, or another massive content platform. With do much centralized hosting of "important" media like family photos, it's only a matter of time before a big enough name abruptly goes out of business, and then it's only a question of how the survivors change to reassure people that their digital lives aren't at risk. Maybe federation. Maybe just an app feature to sync a personal backup of your profile to a device of your choice.

  22. Often in futuristic Sci-Fi movies or video games we see people use exclusively round elevators, meaning that Peter Cooper was not only way ahead of his time in constructing the elevator shaft, but also ahead of our time.

  23. Subways will probably be retrofitted to accommodate a network of self driving cars that serve as the public transportation system.

  24. In the future we'll use teleporters so we'll need no more elevators, stairs or corridors and we can just stuff whole buildings full of closed rooms. (Ok I know we'll still need fire exits and teleportation is unrealistic but it's a funny idea)

  25. The next big invention will be a neck straightener to fix all this crooked-neck mobile phone users who will in years to come be unable to look upwards

  26. Kind of wild knowing I walk past that building multiple times a week and never knew about most of the info mentioned

  27. Regarding you question what will be usual in the future. I think it will be resilient farming like Aqua-, Hydro- and Aeroponic and everything regarding sustainability. Hopefully also carbon drawdown. We will have to adapt to climate change.

  28. Are there even that many things designed to last for decades? Aside from buildings, when is that something you would even want to plan for?

  29. I was thinking similar about video games. 20 years ago, most of us never dreamed that our video games would look the way they do, and that things like continually paying for stuff in the games with real money even after the game was purchased, would even be a thing. Just imagining what video games are going to be like 20 years from now hurts my head. Think of the leaps in graphics and technology that we've had in that area in the past 20 years alone.

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