In a theatrical moment during the 1854 New York Exposition, Elisha Otis, a Vermonter with a checkered past, mounted an open elevator cab, hoisted himself above the assembled crowd, and, with a flourish, cut the cables. Otis dramatically failed to die, as the car plummeted downward just six inches and jolted to a stop. Patents followed, and cities were reshaped into the vertical skyline we now regard as inevitable and desirable.
Otis invented neither the concept nor the basic technology of the elevator. Rather, he contributed a device to assure passengers that they most likely would not perish on the way to work, having ascended hundreds of feet above the ground in a trice, an act of technological magic made mundane.
The introduction of Otis’s brake loosed the floodgates, enabling the vertical growth of New York and Chicago that we now see as natural. Half a century later, the automobile began to exert a horizontal pull on the city. In the twentieth century, good roads and airbags pulled suburbs out, while elevators and fire departments pushed towers up, in a dynamic opposition that has confounded great minds of urban planning on both sides.
Take your pick of “cars” – automobiles or elevators – or combine them until you end up with the basic parameters of the built environment we inherited from the twentieth century. The most humble safety inventions drive us out of town or send us floating above the streets. Maybe the fear of death – or, rather, our ability to allay that fear on the everyday level – is substantially more motivating than abstract ideals like “population density” or “decentralization.”
Welcome to the future. It probably won’t kill you.
Trained as an architect, David Hamilton is a homebuilder and developer. He also writes and lectures on urban design and economics. Most recently, he is the co-author, with Prof. R. Peiser, of Professional Real Estate Development.