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Last Updated: Friday, 6 April 2007, 09:27 GMT 10:27 UK
On the up
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News

Lift hall
The first public lift was in a New York department store

Without them there would be no high-rise city. But when it comes to the passenger lift - now celebrating its 150th anniversary - are you a lost soul or a welcome wagon?

It's one of those unglamorous inventions that's so widely used it goes largely unnoticed. You go to the lifts, push the button, and even if it only takes a few seconds, it still feels like too long.

Then you get inside, and as the doors close you take a close-up look at your fellow passengers, get irritated if they've stopped the lift for only one floor, and get even more irritated if not only can you see them in unexpected proximity, you can also smell them.

Erecting skyscrapers
The invention of the lift made skyscrapers possible
But without the lift, which is celebrating a low-key 150th anniversary, the urban landscape would look utterly different. High-rise apartments and thrusting corporate tower blocks would have remained distinctly low-rise if we still depended on the stairs.

We now take the lift for granted, but when the concept of the modern, safety passenger lift was first unveiled, it was demonstrated as a major marvel, with a dramatic, show-business flourish at a trade fair in New York.

It was unveiled by Elisha Otis, who invented the elevator brake which made skyscrapers a practical reality. He cut the rope above the suspended lift carriage to show that its safety brakes worked and it wouldn't come crashing to the ground.

The first steam-driven, passenger safety lift in public use appeared in the Haughwout department store in New York, opening on March 23 1857. Maybe they didn't have the Are You Being Served theme music playing, but it meant the world of modern lifts in shops and offices had arrived.


In 1860, the first lift appeared in a London hotel, the Grosvenor near Victoria Station, although it was rather serenely described as the "ascending room". Presumably this inaugural hotel lift must have seen the first ever conversation about which floor to get off for breakfast.

From an ornate novelty, lifts rapidly became part of the urban landscape. In crowded cities where land was expensive, building upwards into the sky became a possibility - and the first generation of skyscrapers were known as "elevator buildings".

There have been studies in workplaces in the United States suggesting that people wait to get into lifts with people of a similar status
Gary Fitzgibbon
Workplace psychologist
By the beginning of the 20th Century, lifts were serving leviathans such as the 22-storey Flatiron Building in New York and Belle Epoque tourist attractions such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

But for the people using these lifts it was also a different kind of psychological experience. It meant sharing an enclosed metal cage with a bunch of strangers.

"It breaks all the usual conventions about the bubble of personal space we carry around with us - and you don't have the option to move away," says workplace psychologist, Gary Fitzgibbon. Being trapped in this setting can create different types of tensions, he says.

There are people who are phobic about lifts, not so much because of the fear of falling, but the fear of getting stuck.


And he says there can also be a sexual frisson to lifts, with strangers brought close together. For attention-seekers, lifts can be a push-button opportunity, he says, either by hogging the lift buttons or starting conversations that no one can escape.

There can also be power games, says Mr Fitzgibbon. "There have been studies in workplaces in the United States suggesting that people wait to get into lifts with people of a similar status."

In the US, there are also much-e-mailed profiles of the lift passengers to avoid. The most feared is the irrepressibly friendly person who wants to treat the lift carriage as their "welcome wagon". Other familiar characters are the image-conscious "Primper", the "Lost Soul" who never quite finds the right floor and the self-explanatory "Creepy Guy".

Richard Gere
There can be a sexual frisson to lifts
There's also a whole behaviour-watching theory about where you stand in a lift. Back to the wall to be able to see everyone else in the lift? Or staying near the door to make an easy exit?

Another hazard of the lift traveller is piped music, usually of the schmaltz-flavoured variety.

Even though it might be associated with the kipper-tied 1970s, in fact lift music has a much longer history, says Jacob Smith from the University of Nottingham's Institute of Film and Television Studies.

Music has been playing in lifts since the early 1920s - with the intention of soothing any tension or anxieties. And who was the chief provider of this service? The Muzak Corporation. Although previously such tinkling tunes were reviled as a "crime against music", Mr Smith says such lift music is now undergoing a critical revival.


Lifts have another more substantial cultural pedigree. They've been an irresistible device for movie makers, who use the tension and drama of this enclosed space. There are entire movie buff lists dedicated to movies with lift scenes - such as North by Northwest, Some Like It Hot and Towering Inferno.

"The lift has got everything for a feature film's development," says the British Film Institute's Brian Robinson. "Is someone going to be left alone in the lift with the killer? There's the interplay of racing a lift by using the stairs, the drama of waiting."

There's the whole uncertainty of who might be among the passengers in a lift - and the way the lift doors open and close is almost like the curtains on a stage, revealing and concealing characters.

Gregory Peck in the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
Lifts play a big part in films
It was also a very convenient shot for directors, atmospheric but with no need for any elaborate camera movements, says Mr Robinson, whose own lift favourite is a 1940s Gary Cooper movie called The Fountainhead.

Lift technology has also been on an upward trajectory. The appetite for prestige skyscrapers has meant developing lifts that can match this vertical ambition.

The current holder of the fastest lift record runs up and down the Taipei 101 building in Taiwan, which is claimed as the world's tallest building. The lift, which travels up to 36 miles per hour, had to be adapted for changes in pressure, so that passengers' ears wouldn't pop.

To put it into context, the building is more than twice the height of the biggest tower in Canary Wharf in London and the lift takes 37 seconds to get to the top. In 1857, the first lift in Haughwout's took a minute to travel 40 feet.

An even bigger project is proposed in Switzerland, where plans for an underground railway station below the Alps would mean creating the world's longest passenger lift, almost a kilometre to and from the surface.

Lifts? It's not such an open and shut story.

Below is a selection of your comments

Mirrors are also a vitall element to lifts. Not merely added to make it look bigger inside but primarily as a device to make the journey seem faster by giving us something to look at - and our favourite thing too - ourselves. Lifts that have mirrors can travel slower than their non-mirrired lifts and still be percieved as faster. Get in a lift - if there is a mirror you will check your appearance. Watch yourself and see.
Andrew, Kettering

The lift, I'm told, is the safest form of transport in the world. So much for air travel!
James Boulter, Berkhamsted, UK

The wierdest lift I ever used was a Paternoster lift in an office building in Warrington in the late 1980's. For those who don't know what one is, it's a 'continual cycle' lift that rotates in a loop. There are no doors and passengers have to step in and out (only 2 people per compartment)when the lift appears or when they reach the desired floor. I believe there are still quite a few of these still in operation around the UK....although probably not at the headquarters of the Health & Safety Executive!!!!
Andy, lancashire

I was once trapped in a lift in a hotel in Singapore. It felt like I was living out a cliché, because I think everyone has always wondered what would happen if the lift got jammed. In my case I was stuck with some American tourists and in true 'Blitz spirit' we spent the time joking about lifts rather than worrying about the situation.
Mark Kobayashi-Hillary, London, UK

Having lived in a council flat as a student where the lifts worked intermittently I became fit climbing the 19 floors to my flat. The fact that they were more like mobile toilets than lifts however reflects another element of modern living ....
Stu, London

Surely the most celebrated (and imitated) moment in the life of lifts is when Bart Simpson presses all the buttons inside one on the way out, condeming a business man inside to frequent-floor-stop hell!
Cecil Ashitey, London, England

All well and good to give the Americans the credit but any industrial historian will know that the lift was invented by a Mr Teagle and was commonplace in the factories of Northern England a good 100 years before Mr Otis's invention.
Trevor, UK

Of course all these longest lift rides will seem as nothing if the "lift to the stars" becomes reality. As Arthur C Clarke fans will know from his book The fountains of Paradise the proposed lift to a geo-stationary platform would be a 22,300 mile trip.
Laurie, London

Arthur C Clarke's "Fountains of Paradise" orbital elevator is actually not completely fictional. The NASA "Space Elevator" site shows last year's tests of some of the technology. Best guess is that, given the political will, we could build one for around $10Bn inside the next 5 years. How much Muzak would that trip need?
John R Smith, England.....Not Europe

Yeah, lifts are a great piece of engineering. I don't trust the one at the University library though. It kept closing on me when I entered and once I held my arm out to keep it open for someone when it closed on it. So now I need to climb ten levels to get books, keeps me fit.
Craig, Glasgow

Surely the BBC should be condemning the lift as an energy-guzzling device pumping out tonnes of CO2, encouraging people to avoid exercise and get ever fatter, while doing countless miles a year either empty or with only a few passengers. If not, why not?
Baz, London, UK

Under the old Disabled Persons Act in the UK, which was only recently superceded, "passenger lift attendant" was a job reserved for the registered disabled. When I was a boy (a very long time ago!) all lifts had an attendant. The last one I came across was in a department store in Southampton in the seventies.
Patrick George, Nurmo, Finland

I had a sociology class once where the teacher had an class project of getting into an elevator and facing towards people. If you are a woman, people looked at you like you were "off". If you were a man, people hugged their packages assuming you were a criminal.
Kara, Mobile, AL USA

I have always had a sneaky suspicion that the lift stays still and the world moves up and down around it....and surely the most famous lift is the one in star trek.
john , st ives cornwall

Please spare a thought for those of us who suffer from claustrophobia and the idea of a lift send us into sheer panic!! Stairs are a much healthier option anyway!!
Chloe, Chelmsford, Essex, UK

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