Tuesday, September 8, 2009

New York's Most Transforming Invention

It can be fun to play the game: what's the most transforming invention of modern times. I have heard good cases made for television, automobiles, airplanes, air conditioning, computers, and quite a few others. I want to devote this post to my vote, at least as far as a city like New York is concerned. My pick is the elevator.

First developed and tested by Elisha Otis in 1853 in Yonkers, New York, the elevator was initially used to move freight but within a few years was also being installed in department stories and hotels to move large numbers of people more efficiently between floors. The elevator didn't really take off as a widely used device until well after the Civil War, but it, along with the development of steel, literally made the skyscraper possible.

Interestingly, when the Brooklyn Bridge was finished in 1883, it was designed not so much to bring people to Manhattan but more so to convey people from Manhattan into Brooklyn, as it was believed that most of the space in Manhattan had been used up and that the development of Brooklyn was where the future lay. Even at that point, no one really anticipated the modern skyscraper. The idea of developing a city up, instead of out, hadn't really dented the public imagination. Although there were a number of 10-story buildings in Manhattan as early as the 1870s, the skyscraper of 20
stories or more was not constructed until about 1890. Throughout the 1890s, however, thanks to the elevator and steel, many buildings of 20 stories or more were put up. Throughout the first years of the 20th century in New York, a new record for height was set almost every year, culminating in a sense with the Woolworth Building of 1910-1913, which climbed to 60 stories and became the tallest commercial building in New York until 1930 and the next great wave of skyscrapers rolled in.

All of this tremendous development upwards would have been impossible without the elevator. Thus, cities as we know them today, particularly New York, were the direct result of the perfection of elevator technology, a most transforming innovation.

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