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Local call rate

The Evolution of the lift

Since the dawn of time evolution has dictated that humans must forever endeavour to continuously and efficaciously make their lives more efficient. In the process of this eternal labour, the lift was developed from a device powered by primitive muscle power, to an invention of state-of-the-art technology which promises to hoist us into a celestial future. Though the lift is the intrinsic instrument by which skyscrapers have become a reality, it has also been fundamental in shaping our past.

The genesis of the lift was recorded by Roman author and civil engineer, Vitruvius. In his writings, Vitruvius bestows the accolade for inventing the lift upon Archimedes, his predecessor by over 150 years. Archimedes’ invention was believed to be constructed in 235 BC, and consisted of an open platform dependent on hemp ropes being pulled manually.


Although Archimedes, one of the pioneers in classical antiquity, developed the lift to alleviate daily toils, Louis XV of France utilised the invention to furtively feed his surreptitious desires. In 1743 Louis XV had the ‘flying chair’ constructed at the Chateau de Versailles to allow him to secretly visit his mistresses. It not only spared the infamous Bourbon physique from a summit of stairs, but also hid his adulterous proclivities from the prying eyes of his court. Originally designed for Madame de Châteauroux, the flying chair would also serve the needs of Madame de Pompadour.

The industrial revolution fast tracked mankind into the modern era, and in the process, developed the lift beyond the covert transportation of mistresses. Following James Watt’s invention of the Steam engine in 1781, lifts began to utilize steam power to transport coal from mines. It was not long before this technology was expanded to serve wider purposes, and by the early 19th century, architects Burton and Hormer were using the technology to feed the frivolity of tourism. Before the creative term ‘lift’ existed, the fertile imagination of Burton and Hormer titled the invention, ‘the ascending room’. The ascending room would hoist visitors over 120 feet above Regents Park, offering a panoramic view of London. Though it is widely speculated that their lift ran on steam power, Burton and Hormer professed their creation ran entirely on ‘secret machinery’.

The next milestone in the lift’s history was the development of the hydraulic crane, blossoming from the brain of industrialist and businessman William Armstrong. His invention used a water pump to supply a variable level of water pressure to a plunger encased inside a cylinder, this allowed a platform to be raised and lowered. The hydraulic crane was commonly found in dockyards, aiding the loading and unloading of cargo from incoming barges. This technology quickly superseded the previous steam driven apparatus, based upon its ability to carry greater loads.

In 1854, American Industrialist Elisha Otis made one of the most integral developments to the lift. Whilst he did not expand upon the process of the lift going up or down, he saliently eliminated the possibility of it free falling towards the ground. His mechanism worked by a governor device engaging with knurled rollers, locking the elevator to its guides should the elevator descend at a sudden excessive speed. Perhaps even more noteworthy than this feat, was Otis then offered himself as the means by which to demonstrate his mechanism at the Crystal Palace in New York in 1854. This public display lead to the first passenger elevator being installed at 488 Broadway in New York City in 1857.

The first electric lift was created at the end of the 19th century, constructed by German inventor Werner von Siemens. Though commended for fathering this invention, his true passion lay in evolving locomotive travel, and thus surrendered his idea to be improved upon by inventor Anton Freissler. Freissler introduced his own prototype of the electric lift at the 1883 Vienna Exposition. The century that followed would see the lift develop further, furnishing its cabins with air conditioning, push button controls, and improved safety measures. In expanding cities where buildings are perpetually rising, the electric elevator benefited from no height limitations, and thus skyscrapers were, and are, bound only by mankind’s bravery to ascend. The sky is no longer the limit.

Written by Hallam Bullock for Ability Lifts

Hallam Bullock graduated in 2018 from Greenwich University with a first class degree in English Literature and History.