We tend to take escalators for granted these days. Yet they are barely over 100 years old. Some of the earliest models were made with wooden steps, and some had no handrails. Several men actually came up with the idea at around the same time, but not all of them were successful.
On March 9, 1859, a patent was issued to Nathan Ames for an invention called "Revolving Stairs." Unfortunately, Mr. Ames died in 1860, never having built his invention. The first working model of an escalator was patented in 1892 by Jesse W. Reno, and it made its debut as a novelty ride at Coney Island in 1896. At the same time, Charles A. Wheeler patented his own design for a moving staircase in 1892, but like Mr. Ames, he never actually built it.
Otis Elevator Company
Charles Seeburger started working with the Wheeler designs, and eventually he teamed up with Otis Elevator Company to produce the first commercial escalator, which won first prize at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900. In 1911, Otis took over Reno's designs and became the only American manufacturer of the escalator. Though Otis controlled the market on the product during the early 20th century, today its many competitors include Mitsubishi, Kone and Schlindler.
In the 1980s, Mitsubishi Electric introduced the spiral escalator, and to date it is still the only company to manufacture this type of escalator. The companies that manufacture escalators and elevator equipment continue to seek improvements and innovations, and Mitsubishi notes that the precison of the equipment is complex, requiring regular maintenance.
In 1909, engineer Max Schmidt proposed a network of moving walkways all around Manhattan, to the tune of $70 million. His vision was that these moving sidewalks would eliminate the need for subways. Unfortunately, more people understood the concept of an underground train than a moving walkway, and that, coupled with the fact that a subway car needing repair would be less disruptive than a section of sidewalk in need of repair, brought the idea to a halt.
Each year, some 7,000 accidents occur on escalators. Most of these are falls, but about 1,200 of them due to an article of clothing, shoes, feet or hands becoming caught in the equipment. Escalators are not designed to automatically stop in such an instance; instead, a red button is typically located at both the bottom and top of the escalator to be pressed for an emergency stop. In many cases, children and the elderly are the most vulnerable to escalator accidents and injuries.