The elevator has had a lot of ups and downs. (Sorry, sorry.) As the innovation gained popularity in the late 1800s, it had a profound effect on the way we organize our cities and ourselves. It was also blamed for a rise in crime, for causing something called brain fever, for destroying civil society, and more. On this episode of Build For Tomorrow, we look at how the elevator shaped our world, why not everyone loved that, and what it has to teach us about the next big change. Because while the elevator may seem like old technology today, it has a big lesson for us about the future of transportation.
Jason Feifer: This is Pessimists Archive, a history show about why people resist new things. I'm Jason Feifer. If you were alive in 1913, and if you're the kind of person who is just insanely into royal weddings, then the thing that would have given your life some strange meaning would have been the union of Prince Ernest Augustus of Brunswick Luneberg to his beloved bride, Princess Victoria Louise, daughter of the Kaiser.
The wedding party was going to be epic. 1200 guests, and 800 of them were to be housed at the Hotel Adlon near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. So now just pause for a moment to consider the poor employees of the Hotel Adlon, who had to organize this insane thing. I mean, this is 800 guests, 800 very particular, very powerful, very needy, very expectant guests.
For example, there was the Duke of Schleswig-Holstein, who asked for a room on the fourth floor.
Voice Clip (Hedda Adlon): It was the Duke's express wish to stay on that floor and no other.
Jason Feifer: That's from the memoir of Hedda Adlon, the widow of the hotel owner, who was reflecting upon this day. And so fine, fourth floor for the Duke. But then word comes that the Czar of Russia, Nicholas II will be paying a visit to the wedding and he particularly wants to visit the Duke, which was a problem.
Voice Clip (Hedda Adlon): We were told that under no circumstances could the Czar be expected to climb the stairs to the fourth floor.
Jason Feifer: And so the hotel is like, totally get it, Czar Nicholas II of Russia, you've got royal legs, stairs are for your starving and suffering citizens. And that's why we at the Hotel Adlon have the finest and new technology, for we have an elevator.
Voice Clip (Hedda Adlon): Going up.
Jason Feifer: Yes, it's a lovely, beautiful elevator that moves with the grace and steadiness of a world leader and can take you up to the fourth floor to see the Duke. But Nicholas II's people had an answer to this, and their answer was, [foreign language].
Voice Clip (Hedda Adlon): Going down.
Jason Feifer: Here again, from Hedda's memoir.
Voice Clip (Hedda Adlon): Russian court protocol governed every step the Czar took and nowhere did it mention an elevator, thus, there were no instructions for how the Czar and his retinue were to behave in such a situation. Should he enter the cab first? Was he permitted to keep his hat on? Who should operate the elevators crank? And God knows what else.
Jason Feifer: Now, presumably that's the explanation the hotel got from Nicholas IIs people, and that wasn't all they had to say about Russian court protocol.
Voice Clip (Hedda Adlon): The protocol had survived unchanged from the days of Catherine the Great. Catherine, of course, had never ridden an elevator for the simple reason that there weren't any back then, and that's why the protocol contained not one word of this means of vertical transportation.
Jason Feifer: So the hotel had to make some speedy rearrangements and they moved the Duke and his wife out of his beloved fourth floor and onto the second floor, because sorry, Duke, the Czar doesn't come to you, you come to the Czar. And we might hear this story today and think, well that's a weird quirk for a guy who controlled Russia. But here's the thing, Nicholas II wasn't alone.
Andreas Bernard: All the monarchs in the period of late monarchy in Europe, so when we speak about 1900 to 1918, because all the monarchs, they did not like to use the elevator.
Jason Feifer: All of them. The German Kaiser, the British Queen. Kaiser Franz Joseph the first of Austria wouldn't even visit his longtime mistress in her upper story apartment in Vienna because it required him to take an elevator. And if a politician lets something get in the way between him and some ill begotten sex, you know there's something serious going on.
That mam you heard a moment ago, by the way, was Andreas Bernard, a professor in journalist in Germany, who is the author of a book called Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator. And as Andreas explains this explanation about Czar Nicholas II following Russian court protocol, just that didn't make any sense. I mean, Catherine the Great died in 1796. She had never set eyes on a car, but it's not like Nicholas II avoided cars just because the protocol didn't mention them.
But as Andreas Bernard studied the elevator, he said he found something else going on. The monarchs found the elevator to be particularly frightening. There was something about it that seemed deeply threatening, and not just because it shrunk their open space. And he thinks he knows what it is.
Andreas Bernard: Because they instinctively knew it was a democratic medium.
Jason Feifer: Because they instinctively knew it was a democratic medium. It's not a way that I've ever heard the elevator described before, but it's absolutely correct. The elevator is a form of transportation, and people with power, whether they run nations or companies, or just have a lot of family money to burn, they expect special privilege in their transportation. There's first-class travel on airplanes and trains and passenger ships and even buses. If you're going to go by car, you can insist on a fancy model with a built-in massager for your butt, but there is no first and economy class in an elevator. There's just the elevator. Everyone from all walks of life squeezes into the thing just the same.
But European royalty weren't the only ones with objections. As the elevator gained popularity, it became seen as, and in many cases really was, an engine for total cultural change, moving some people up and other people down. Elevators had a profound effect on the way that we organize our cities and ourselves. They were blamed for a rise in crime, for causing something called brain fever, for destroying part of civil society, and more.
The elevator stuffed us all into a little box and jolted us, and some people just weren't willing to go along for that ride. So that's what we're going to explore here on this episode of Pessimists Archive. We're going to look at how the elevator shaped our world, how it continues to impact us, and what it still has to teach us about the next big change. Because the elevator may seem like an old technology today, but it has big lessons for us about the future of transportation. So step on in, hit the top button, and stand clear of... Well, you know.
Voice Actress: Please stand clear of the closing door.
Jason Feifer: We're going for a ride, after this break.
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Jason Feifer: All right, so before we get into silly freakouts over the elevator, let's get into the very understandable freakouts over the elevator, which, of course, stems from a legitimate question. If I step onto this box, will I plummet to my death? And the answer was, yeah, you might.
The first elevators were used in mine shafts and had an awful reputation for sending miners plummeting to their deaths. Then passenger elevators began being installed in England in the 1830s and in America in the 1840s, and they were using simple hemp ropes to hold the elevator up, but the ropes would snap with some regularity and thus sent more people plummeting to their deaths.
But everything seemed to change, very famously, when a man named Elisha Otis held a publicity stunt in 1854. So let me take you there. Imagine it. You're at an event called the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations. It's in Manhattan and was like the World's Fair of its day, where people would come to see the latest technology. And in the middle of it all, was this giant machine, towering 50 feet high. And what was this thing? It was basically a 50 foot open elevator shaft.
Just like any elevator at the time, the platform of the elevator was being held up by a rope. Pull the rope and the platform rises. And once an hour, this is what would happen. Otis himself, Elisha Otis, would step onto the platform and a hush would fall over the crowd. Then he'd be raised up, up, up to the very top, until this platform was high above the crowd, suspended in air by this rope, then Otis would yell three words that have become famous in elevator history.
Elisha Otis: Cut the rope.
Jason Feifer: The assistant would cut the rope and the platform that Otis stood on would suddenly begin to plummet. And then it would stop, and Otis would say...
Elisha Otis: All safe gentlemen. All safe.
Jason Feifer: So what was happening here? Otis had developed what became known as the safety elevator. Rather than rising up on straight metal beams, Otis had developed sawtooth beams, and if the rope broke, it would trigger a spring in the elevator that would snap open on both sides and wedge itself into the sawtooth beam, thereby stopping the elevator from falling. It was a great idea, and Otis Elevators would go on to be the name in elevators. His name is still on most elevators that you'll ride today.
The elevator began to spread around the world, but this did not resolve all elevator problems. First of all, the safety elevator is still a pretty rudimentary device.
Andreas Bernard: There was a rope in the cabin, and the lift boy pulled the rope until he reached the next level.
Jason Feifer: Can you imagine that? There's literally a rope going through the elevator and a guy standing there pulling it. And also, because there's no electricity, the doors to the elevator weren't automated either. Anyone could open them at any time. And then the passenger would have to coordinate with the guy pulling the rope, and that led to a constant horror show that played out in the newspapers. People would open the elevator door, there'd be no elevator there, and they'd fall to their death. Or they'd stick their head into the shaft to see where the elevator was and get crushed. Or something would happen like this insane story from the New York Times in 1873 about a woman named Mrs. Withers. She was shopping for furniture in Cincinnati and the store she was in had an elevator, but it was a real bare bones operation. Mrs. Withers was nervous to get on it, but the clerk assured her that it was safe. And so here's the paper with what happened next.
Voice Clip (Clerk): Mrs. Withers wore a nearly new black alpaca dress, which immediately, on the starting of the elevator became entangled. Mrs. Withers told the man her dress was caught, the elevator, in the meantime, rising, and she being drawn down by her dress. The man, instead of stopping the elevator instantly, as he easily could have done, tried to pull the dress out, but without avail. The elevator was still rising and Mrs. Withers was drawn down onto the floor of the platform. The man must have lost all presence of mind, for he allowed the elevator to rise resistlessly, tearing the clothes off the lower part of Mrs. Withers body, bruising her in a sickening manner and breaking her legs in three places.
Jason Feifer: What a nightmare, right? So people are reading stories like this and they're getting pretty freaked by elevators, and I don't think anyone could blame them. But that doesn't stop the elevator from spreading. The technology improves, safety procedures become better, and just as importantly, the world just begins to orient itself around the elevator.
Consider this, in the 1860s, before the safety elevator, buildings rarely went higher than six stories, and then those buildings would have a hierarchy. The rich would be on the bottom and the poor would be on the top, which made sense. The bottom floors were easy to access, so it's where rich people preferred to be, and the top floors were schlepped so that's where the poor had to go. But then the elevator made it easy to get to the top of a building and suddenly everything reversed.
Andreas Bernard: You have totally new room types, the penthouse in the hotels, the chief executives suite in the business building, the roof garden.
Jason Feifer: The rich were basically gentrifying vertically, kicking the poor people out of the top and turning those spaces into beautiful new things like penthouses. And of course the elevator had also enabled buildings to become much taller. There was a lot of money and status to be had here.
By the 1890s, elevators had become fairly commonplace and also they'd become a lot safer and would continue to improve. Soon, elevators are so common that people stop routinely falling to their deaths in them and instead just joke about falling to their deaths in them.
For example, I found this 1933 comedy movie called, So This Is Africa. It stars the vaudeville duo Wheeler and Woolsey, who are these two buffoons that stumble into funny situations. These two jokers get into the elevator and accidentally pull some kind of safety lever, which sends the elevator plummeting more than 100 stories. And the gag is that one of the guys is understandably very concerned about this and the other one slowly tries to fix the problem like he's got all the time in the world. He picks up the phone and... Well, you might recognize the company he calls.
Movie Clip: Hello, long distance? Get me the Gotis Elevator Company in Gotis, Connecticut. Well, what difference is there in price? She says if we wait until 8:00 tonight, we can save 30 cents.
Movie Clip: We can't wait. We're in a hurry.
Jason Feifer: Did you catch that? He's calling Gotis, it's a play on Otis, the elevator company from our man with the publicity stunt.
The elevator has passed the first great test, which is that it's survived in the world long enough to be improved. And once it gained mass adoption, people moved on from very real safety concerns and onto, well, the concerns born of unfamiliarity. So let's get into it. Now it's time to look at what wackiness the elevator wrought.
I'd like to zero in on three objections in particular, because, very fascinatingly, there are three issues that we're still debating today in one form or another. So here they are. Number one, elevator etiquette. Number two, elevator sickness. And number three, elevator control. All right, let's take them one by one.
First, elevator etiquette. So if you called for an elevator in the late 1800s, the door would open and you'd see something totally foreign to what you'd see today. First of all, of course, there's a person operating the elevator, but also the elevator would look like your grandmother's sitting room.
Andreas Bernard: They had sofas, they had great lightening on the ceiling, you could sit down, some had thick red carpet.
Jason Feifer: Could you imagine today if an elevator opened in front of you and it was decked out like this? You'd think you were being punked. But this happened because at first people weren't entirely sure how to think about the elevator. Was it merely a form of transportation or was it another room in the building? It wasn't really clear, and because that wasn't clear, it wasn't at all clear what laws of decorum people were supposed to follow. Do they act like they're in a public space or a private space?
That's how you end up with stuff like this 1866 story that we found about elevator etiquette in the Chicago News. It starts by describing a scene. So there's a young man who walks into an elevator and he doesn't take his hat off, and, importantly, there are women in the elevator. Then an elderly man with a hat in his hand taps the young man on the shoulder and he says...
Voice Clip (elderly man): I say, don't you know enough to take your hat off in the presence of ladies?
Jason Feifer: And the kid has no patience for this. He replies...
Voice Clip (elderly man): My friend, who made you the judge of courtesy on the subject of wearing headgear in a public place?
Jason Feifer: This kind of thing was apparently happening everywhere. It was the question of the day. Does a man take his hat off in the presence of ladies in an elevator? The article in the Chicago News argued yes, but proposed a complicated set of rules about it. So just in case you're looking to be a proper gentleman in the 1800s, the rule is, yes, take off the hat in quote from the paper, "Private elevators in the large flats, those semi-private in hotels, and in dry goods, notion or other stores, where the patronage almost exclusively consists of females," end quote. But you can go ahead and leave your hat on and elevators that are in government buildings and large office buildings.
This seems fun and quirky, but here's the craziest part. This debate would last the better part of an entire century. By 1936, a full 70 years after that Chicago News story, the biggest celebrities of the day were being asked to weigh in on this question. Here's what Depression Era sex symbol Mae West said.
Mae West: It isn't important that a man takes his hat off in the presence of a woman, it's where he leaves it after he goes.
Jason Feifer: That same article contains a passing reference to Congressman Maury Maverick of Texas and an organization called... It's A-P-O-T-H-E. Did they mean it to be pronounced apathy, aptohe, I don't know. Anyway, it stands for the Association for the Prevention of Taking off Hats in Elevators. And when I read that, I thought, is that a joke? And who's it a joke on? So I did a little more digging, which led me to an Associated Press story, also from 1936, because yes, as it turns out this Texas Congressman took to the floor of the US House of representatives to demand a stop to hat tipping in elevators. Here's from the story, which is just an amazing document from start to finish.
Voice Clip (Congressman Maury Maverick): Representative Maverick today called upon all good men and true to desert the customs of the dead past and keep their hats on in elevators. Pounding a large history book and getting red in the face, the Texan said he had been doing research in preparation for his speech at the organization meeting Saturday of the APOTHE.
Jason Feifer: What exactly was that research? Maverick revealed it on the House floor. He said that hat lifting is, "A survival of the vainest and most corrupt age in history." And by that, he means Medieval Times with knights in shining armor, and here's the rest of his history lesson, word for word, from his mouth.
Voice Clip (Congressman Maury Maverick): The custom of raising the hat came down from the time when the knight lifted his visor of his helmet when he rode by the ladies. The gesture only satisfied his vanity, for he was just letting her know who he was, not paying her any respect.
Jason Feifer: Wait, wait, wait, what? I had to call an expert on this because is that a true historical fact?
Andrew Rabin: I think the easy answer there is, no.
Jason Feifer: That's Andrew Rabin, a regular on Pessimists Archive. He's an English Professor at the University of Louisville with a specialty in early medieval law and literature.
Andrew Rabin: First of all, in the Middle Ages there was never any ambiguity over who the knight was under the armor. They're going to be signified by their shield, they're going to be signified by the kind of armor they're wearing, they're going to be signified by the trappings on their saddle.
Jason Feifer: That's because back then every knight wanted to be easily recognized on the battlefield so that tales could be told of their legendary bravery.
All right, so it's confirmed, Representative Maverick should not be teaching history lessons. But wait, it gets even better, and I know now I'm really, really going far down this rabbit hole, but indulge me for just one more minute, because all right, this is the best. This is the best.
Representative Maverick takes his historical anti hat tipping case to Washington, and in response, a Senator from Illinois named James Hamilton Lewis offered a historical counterargument. Lewis said basically, "Yo, Maverick, you are 2,266 years too late on trying to stop men from tipping their hats to women."
This is from another Associated Press story in 1936, a direct quote from Senator Lewis.
Voice Clip (James Hamilton): Back in 330 BC, a great Greek named [Fauchion] tried to pass a law which would have relieved the men from removing their helmets as a gesture of respect to women.
Jason Feifer: The Senator makes the point that, hey, a law just like this didn't pass in 330 BC, so there's no reason to bother trying to pass it now. And of course that left me wondering, is any of that true?
Andrew Rabin: Yeah, no, that doesn't sound right to me either.
Jason Feifer: In fact, I checked with four academics who focus on ancient Greece, some of them with a specialty in gender relations, and they all said, it sounds wrong. I mean, just for starters, Athenian art shows men wearing helmets in front of women a lot. I mean, it's amazing. What is going on here with 1930s politicians and their completely fabricated historical anecdotes? It's not like today's politicians ever misrepresent historical events for their own benefit. Anyway, nevermind.
Here's a real historical fact. Fauchion was executed and it had zero to do with women and helmets. Although, according to the newspaper report, Illinois Senator James Hamilton Lewis seemed to think there was some connection, and so that misunderstanding sets up what is really the world's greatest, weirdest, ending to a newspaper story. Here it is, word for word, Associated Press 1936, the report of an interview with a Senator from Illinois.
Voice Clip (James Hamilton): Asked if Fauchion's fate had influenced him in his ideas about the elevator hat doffers, the Chesterfield of the Senate flicked a cucumber green silk handkerchief dangling from his breast pocket and replied, "Ladies in elevators should never be concerned with whether I take off my hat or leave it on. They should be concerned with me."
Jason Feifer: What? Thank you, 1930s, because you really never disappoint.
We are out of that rabbit hole, and when we look back upon this whole crazy thing, and nearly a century of arguing over whether hats should be removed in elevators and exactly how people are supposed to relate to each other in these things, I think the most interesting part about it is how little has actually changed. I mean, sure, we don't have the exact same debates anymore, but here we are 165 years after the safety elevator debuted, and we still aren't entirely comfortable in elevators, which is why we make a lot of jokes about it.
Voice Clip (Ellen DeGeneres): It's a tiny little space, close proximity to a stranger. It's silent. That's awkward. I always try to break that silence by saying something. First day of parole.
Jason Feifer: That was from an old Ellen DeGeneres standup bit. Maybe the simple answer is, elevators are awkward and we're awkward in them and we always will be.
All right, so that's elevator etiquette. Now let's move on to our second concern, elevator sickness. And that is not a phrase I came up with, by the way, it was a documented condition of the time.
Andreas Bernard: A lot of people said, I don't feel well, especially when we go down. The spine is irritated.
Jason Feifer: What exactly was elevator sickness and what caused it? People had various theories. It was created by the unnatural vertical movement of an elevator or the speed at which it moved or the jerkiness of the elevator when it stopped. In 1894, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that elevator sickness caused "Brain fever and disordered nervous systems."
In 1890, Scientific American described elevator sicknesses as bringing "A dizziness to the head and sometimes a nausea to the stomach. The internal organs seem to want to rise in the throat." But have no fear, because Scientific American also had a prescription for how to ride the elevator without getting sick.
The magazine's theory was this, the problem with elevators is that it causes parts of our bodies to move at different times. When an elevator stops, for example, our feet are on the floor and so they stop with the elevator, but the rest of our bodies will keep moving a little longer and that gets us all messed up. So the solution is to attach our entire bodies to the elevator. Here is what the magazine suggested.
Voice Clip (Scientific American): If the body as a whole can be arrested at the same time as the feet, there will be no sickness. This can be done by placing the head and shoulders against the car frame. If this practice is carefully adopted, the swiftest elevators can be ascended and descended with impunity.
Jason Feifer: If you want a really freaky experience, imagine calling an elevator, watching the doors open, and then seeing everyone inside just fully plastered to the walls. It's like if the Blair Witch Project took place in Midtown Manhattan.
Of course this got me wondering, what was going on here? Could elevator sickness have been a real thing or was it just the manifestation of some techno panic? So we called up a guy who would know.
Thomas Stoffreg: You and I have been using the elevators since we were babies. That's the real difference, is that in 1890, everybody who got on the elevator was an adult and had no prior experience.
Jason Feifer: That's Thomas Stoffregen, the Director of the Affordance Perception-Action Laboratory in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Minnesota. That's a mouthful. Anyway, that's a fancy way of saying he knows a lot about motion sickness. And he said, yeah, if you were an adult with absolutely no experience riding vertically, the elevator could make you sick. In fact, even though we're all accustomed to moving up and down in an elevator today, we're experiencing another uniquely modern form of motion sickness now, all thanks to the elevator.
Because here's the thing, the elevator allowed us to build tall buildings and today we're building really tall buildings, buildings that are so tall that they are actually swaying in the wind, which is perfectly safe, but...
Thomas Stoffreg: It won't surprise you that the higher floor you are on, the more motion you're going to get. And guess what, people who work on the upper floors of tall buildings can get sick.
Jason Feifer: They get sick enough that there's medical literature on the phenomenon. It is the elevator sickness of our day. But that, I found, isn't the only connection that elevator sickness has to our modern times, because here's the thing, yeah, some people might have actually gotten sick and thrown up on an elevator, but it is very likely that all the reporting about elevator sickness at the time actually got more people sick.
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Jason Feifer: I dropped a line to Paul Slovic, a Psychology Professor at the University of Oregon who researches how people perceive risk, and asked him if all of this talk about elevator sickness might have gotten people so worried that it actually caused them to feel sick on the elevator, and he replied that, yeah, that definitely happens. He suggested that I Google the phrase power of suggestion, and yep, there are plenty of examples of this from past and present.
One result is a great article in the American Psychological Association's website, which explains how the barrage of health information online today can lead some people to feel sick. And I really liked the way this guy, James Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin, puts it in the story. He says, "If a visitor sits on your sofa and you say, my dog has fleas, watch them start scratching. They don't have fleas, they're just paying attention differently."
This is why it's so irresponsible when we stoke unnecessary fears about technology. If you spend enough time convincing people that something new is harmful, well, they just may react to it as if it is harmful, and that's not healthy for anyone.
All right, time to move on to our final category of elevator troubles. We've talked about elevator etiquette and elevator sickness, and now finally, it's time to talk about elevator control.
We've established by now that the elevator was pretty safe by the 1930s, it was a machine you could rely upon, and that meant its biggest flaw, which is to say the thing that made the elevator most reliably unreliable, were human beings.
First of all, the elevator operator unions were going on strike a lot, and when they did, the average person was stuck. I mean, skyscrapers were built because of the elevator, and then the machine that made vertical life possible would be randomly taken away.
In 1943, for example, 250 elevator operators abruptly went on strike in the middle of the day around Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, which stranded an estimated 28,000 people. The Times coverage gives a pretty good sense of the chaos that this caused.
Voice Clip (The Times): A gray haired man, who declined to give his name, but who said he was 82 years old, walked down from the 14th floor of the RCA Building. He sat down to rest in the lobby, mopping his brow with his handkerchief. About him were other winded men and women who, as quickly as they recuperated, began asking one another how many flights each had walked down.
Jason Feifer: Meanwhile, other people stayed in their offices and just stuck their heads out the window to yell at the striking operators. But even when the elevator operators were working, the human factor was still really inconvenient, because elevators weren't staffed 24 hours a day.
Andreas Bernard: Since the operators, most of the times they would only work between nine to five, the elevators only operated nine to five.
Jason Feifer: Imagine it. You literally had to catch the last elevator the way you might have to catch the last train today. So if you're working late, you're taking the stairs. If you run out for a meeting and get back to the office at 5:05, you're taking the stairs.
But a new innovation would soon change everything. It was the push button. Instead of a human being literally moving the elevator up and down, the elevator could now go exactly where you wanted it at the push of a button. This was the dawn of what became known as the automatic elevator, the elevator that simply took you where you wanted to go.
You'd think that everyone would say great, finally, let's get rid of all these operators and go up and down as we please. But that's not what happened. Instead, a bunch of cities banned automatic elevators, or if an elevator was upgraded to have push buttons, there would still need to be a guy in there whose job was now to just push the buttons.
Part of the resistance was about protecting jobs. This technology threatened to throw a lot of people out of work. I mean, they were literally being replaced by a button. But there was another reason that people weren't so into the automated elevator, and that was, they didn't trust it.
Lee Gray: You get into an elevator, it's a closed box experience. If they work really well, you can barely feel them move. This is all magic. Well, it's comforting if there's someone there to take over if the magic suddenly doesn't work.
Jason Feifer: That's Lee Gray, a Professor of Architectural History at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and the author of From Ascending Rooms to Express Elevators: A History of the Passenger Elevator in the 19th Century. And he points out that there really wasn't anything like this at the time, and basically still isn't. If you're on a train or an airplane, you may not see the person operating the thing, but you know that they're there, and you have windows to look out of. But the elevator is entirely disorienting. Who's to say if you're safe?
To overcome all this resistance, the elevator industry went on a major campaign. It added features that would make people comfortable in automatic elevators. Stuff we're still familiar with, like a woman's voice coming over the speakers to announce floor numbers, or an emergency stop button. And in the 1950s, the industry went on a full advertising blitz.
Lee Gray: In the advertisements, one of the selling points is not only this is amazing modern technology, anyone can "drive" these elevators, and now remember this is the 50s and the chauvinism that goes with that decade, they would invariably show either a young woman or a drawing of a young woman with a glove on, very daintily pushing the button, because well, let's face it, if she can do it, anyone can. The ads also included, again, 1950s, a different decade, they included how much money you are going to save when you get to fire all of your elevator operators because they're no longer needed.
Jason Feifer: Right, because today companies know enough to make that same point in private, not in public. The unions fought back against this, of course, and they went straight for public fear. They claimed that automatic elevators weren't safe, that in fact there were five times more accidents in automatic elevators. They also said the automatic elevators would lead to more crime, which was an idea that the press picked up on.
We found a 1952 piece in the Daily Oklahoman, headlined, Automatic Elevator Blamed In Part For Crime Rise. And here's a piece from the Chicago Daily News in 1953 reporting on what the union president was saying about crime.
Voice Clip (Chicago Daily News): He added that operators on elevators are a safety and protective factor. He said, assaults, robberies, and even murders that have taken place in apartment houses and in their vestibules, could have been prevented if elevators in the buildings were manned by operators.
Jason Feifer: But fear was ultimately no match for convenience, or at least no match for the deep desire to dump a bunch of people off the building payroll, and so slowly, building by building and city by city, the human operators were replaced by buttons. And as that happened, passengers were left to ponder a question, do you know what the elevator thinks? I mean, people were actually wondering that. I mean, you're stepping into this thing and it seems to have a life of its own. Also, it was the headline of a column in the Courier Journal of Louisville, Kentucky in 1957, and then the column would go on to ponder this.
Voice Clip (Courier Journal): The door has been taught to think, say the elevator people. If the door touches any object in the doorway, it immediately withdraws. This is what the elevator people think the door thinks. You know what I think the door thinks? I think it thinks, get you this time, snap.
Jason Feifer: This would be a theme for decades. People felt like the elevator doesn't just do, it thinks, it's making decisions, and that's creepy because we are totally at the mercy of this thing. Once we're inside, it can do whatever it wants with us, which is basically how we get this crazy Dutch horror movie from 1983 called The Lift. Here's the beginning of the trailer for the movie, featuring this guy standing in an elevator lobby and there's this elevator just sitting and waiting for him.
Movie Clip (The Lift): You're about to meet a monster with the no fangs and no claws. In fact, it can't even chase you, it has to wait for you to walk into it's jaws.
Jason Feifer: It's like that Courier Journal writer, fear, get you this time, snap. So now does any of this sound familiar? It should, because it's basically the same conversation we're having today about self-driving cars. Remember before the push button in the elevator, the elevator technology was safe and the biggest problem kept coming from the people operating the machine. That is functionally the argument that's being made for self-driving cars now, that the car can be made to be perfectly safe so long as we finally remove the human element.
Then you've got the concerns that self-driving cars will lead to massive job losses. And we're also starting to repeat the concern about the machine having a mind of its own. Here's the beginning of a column that recently ran in Bloomberg.
Voice Clip (Bloomberg): Be aware of cars with minds of their own. Predictions that autonomous cars powered by artificial intelligence will create a safer, more harmonious world may be off base. That's because the new thinking technology will respond to different incentives than humans, and that won't necessarily lead to better outcomes.
Jason Feifer: If you're wondering, what is up with that robot voice? Well, I swear to you, if you go to read this column on bloomberg.com, there is an option to play audio of the article as well, and that's the audio you will hear. So to recap, Bloomberg ran a piece about the dangers of artificial intelligence, and then it had it narrated by artificial intelligence. I hope the robot wasn't offended.
But listen, I don't mean to be glib about the coming impact of self-driving cars. I don't. Of all the forms of innovation that we as people have developed and accumulated, transportation innovations are easily the scariest of them all. We are asked to put our bodies inside of machines and then trust an unseen workforce of scientists and engineers and mechanics to have built these machines well enough to survive the trip. The very concept of it is terrifying.
Sometimes I just stare out an airplane window and think, it's insane that I have no idea how this thing works, but here I've trusted it with my life. And if we look back on the history of the elevator, we know that this bargain does not work out for everyone. It was not a smooth ride. People died. People lost their jobs. Cities were reorganized. The poor were displaced. It is fair to assume we'll see versions of this with self-driving cars. There have already been a few deaths, and it's not hard to imagine the job losses.
But what happens after that? Well, there's no shortage of predictions for self-driving cars. That piece in Bloomberg is actually a compilation of totally contradictory assumptions. For example, it found researchers who say that cities will become less congested.
Voice Clip (Bloomberg): Because they communicate with one another all the time, the cars will know when the street is congested and will pick an alternate route.
Jason Feifer: It found other researchers saying that cities will become more congested, as cars just drive around aimlessly.
Voice Clip (Bloomberg): It might be economically justified for the self-driving vehicles just to keep cruising without parking anywhere, the way drivers picking up a passenger at an airport drive around the terminal when they want to avoid paying for short-term parking.
Jason Feifer: We just don't know. We don't. But we do at least know how it worked out for the elevator. It was scary and crazy for a while and it made people sick, whether for real or by the power of suggestion, but then it became safe, efficient, commonplace, the subject of jokes. It enabled buildings to be built bigger and cities to grow, which created far more jobs in the long run than were lost when some humans were replaced by buttons.
I think and hope that's what's in store for us tomorrow too. We can easily imagine the loss of something that we have right now, it's way harder to envision gaining something that we don't currently have. But history has been one of gains, and so when I think of transportation innovations like the elevator, I honestly think what a testament this is to our overwhelming desire as a species that we want so badly to move faster, to be more efficient, to improve our lives, to see and go places, to build taller and higher and defy the physical limitations of our bodies, that we're able to endure the trauma that comes with new and imperfect transportation. We would rather take risks than stand still. It is not an easy journey, but in the long run, it's a better journey. Because this is what we do. We keep moving.
That's our episode. But before we reach the final destination here, I have one more treat for you, and it's going back to how we opened the show. Remember how the Czar of Russia wouldn't use the elevator? That wouldn't be the last time that there was elevator drama featuring a leader of Russia.
I'll share it all in a minute, but first, have you subscribed to Pessimists Archive wherever you get your podcasts? If not, please do it so you won't miss an episode and leave us a review too. You can also follow us on Twitter at @PessimistsArc, A-R-C, where we're constantly tweeting out the ill-conceived words of pessimists throughout history. Or visit our website, pessimists.co, where we have links to some of the things discussed in this episode. We also love hearing from our listeners, so drop us a line at pessimisTsarchive@gmail.com.
Thanks to the people interviewed in this episode, Andreas Bernard, Lee Gray, Thomas Stoffregen, and Andrew Rabin. And thanks to the actors and podcaster who voiced our archival material. They were Brent Rose.
Brent Rose: This has been Brent Rose. That's pronounced Brentholomew Rosenbergenstein.
Jason Feifer: You can find him at brentrose.com. And also Gia Mora.
Gia Mora: Hey, everybody, it's Gia Mora.
Jason Feifer: She's at giamora.com. And of course, Jordan Harbinger.
Jordan Harbinger: I'm not an actor. Asterisk.
Jason Feifer: He of the Jordan Harbinger Show. Thanks also to Mary Minkins, Helen King, Owen Reese, and Debra Cayman. Our theme music is by Caspar Babypants. Learn more at babypantsmusic.com. Pessimists Archive is supported in part by the Charles Koch Foundation. Learn more about the foundation, ckf.org/tech.
Now we go back to how we began this episode, with Russian leaders and elevators. As you know, Nicholas II in 1913, not a fan of elevators, but future Russian leaders made their own choices, and not always with great results.
In 1959, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was visiting New York and stayed at the Waldorf Astoria. And, wouldn't you know it, he was taking the elevator up to his room when it got stuck. It turned into a whole thing with his team worrying that it was a security threat and cops outside and everything. The hotel couldn't get the thing unstuck, so Khrushchev had to climb the stairs to his room. He'd later call it "A capitalist malfunction," which newspapers at the time pointed out was ironic because the Soviet Union's communist elevators were so bad that the Soviet's own government newspaper was complaining about them. Here's an actual quote from the government paper, "You step in and you can't get down. You wait and it never comes."
Today, by the way, you'll never see Vladimir Putin in an elevator. I asked the Russian journalist Alexei Kovalev about this, and he said, "No way, it is too much of a security risk." Back then, world leaders may have worried about elevators seeming too democratic. Today, they just worry about becoming sitting ducks in a box. Which, well, hard to argue with that.
All right, that is all we have for this episode. Thanks for listening to Pessimists Archive. My name is Jason Feifer and we'll see you in the near future.
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