DÉjà Vu

When Elisha Otis brought his new "improvement in hoisting apparatus" to New York's Crystal Palace Exposition in 1854, the elevator had an extensive but patchy history. Elevating contraptions had long been used to haul freight, but a certain design flaw made them all too risky for human cargo: if the rope snapped, the lift plummeted to the ground.

In 1852, Otis had devised a fail-safe solution: he mounted a wagon spring atop the lift. If the rope broke, the huge spring forced two latches into ratchets on the side of the shaft, halting the platform. It made elevators safe for live passengers. But fear of the new apparatus persisted. If Otis's idea were to get off the ground, the phobias would have to be dispelled.

As the inventor stepped aboard his invention at the Crystal Palace, the crowd watched in hushed anticipation. Up the platform went, the rope winding around a steam-powered steel drum, Otis looking poised in his top hat and square-trimmed beard. Suddenly, as the car neared the top of the shaft, Otis cried out to his assistant, "Cut the cable!" The rope was slashed with an ax. The audience gasped. The lift lurched downward an inch or two but quickly came to rest. "All safe, gentlemen, all safe," Otis assured the crowd, tipping his cap.

"This was a very effective method of advertising," Otis's son later wrote, "and resulted in his receiving orders for elevators from several different parts of the country." Today the familiar "Otis" plaque hangs in 1.2 million elevators worldwide. --Jerry Useem