First Floor: The Future

New York City’s 1853 international science exhibition introduced inventions we use today, such as the safety elevator 

By Laura Petersen

On July 14, 1853, the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations opened in the stunning glass and iron New York Crystal Palace at the site that is now Bryant Park. At the time, the park was known as Reservoir Square because it was immediately adjacent to a man-made reservoir contained by 50-foot-high granite walls in the space now home to the New York Public Library.

An engraving of the New York Crystal Palace, where the 1853 Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations was held. Used with permission from The New York Historical Society.

An engraving of the New York Crystal Palace, where the 1853 Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations was held. (Used with permission from The New York Historical Society.)

The exhibit was organized following the success of London’s Great Exhibition in 1851, the first World’s Fair. The organizers were “excited to afford the masses in America an opportunity to see the grand total of the world’s industry and the manifold productions and applications of the arts of design brought into one comparative view,” wrote William Richards, editor of the exhibition’s inch-thick catalogue.

More than 4,000 exhibitors from the United States, Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, France, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Denmark, Mexico, Hayti [sic] and the “British Possessions” displayed a seemingly endless array of food and wine, minerals and chemicals, hardware and machines, textiles and clothing, furniture and fine art, medical tools and philosophical instruments.

Some intriguing displays included Morse’s electric telegraph in action, a daguerreotype of the moon’s surface, 177 tantalizing specimens of California gold and “Mathematics simplified – a collection of diagrams to facilitate and ensure the acquisition of mathematical knowledge.”

The poster for the 1853-54 Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations. Used with permission from The New York Historical Society.

The poster for the 1853-54 Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations. Used with permission from The New York Historical Society.

One of the most noteworthy machines was the safety elevator–a freight platform that did not fall down the shaft if the hoisting rope broke. New Yorker Elisha Otis developed the device, which featured angled metal teeth along the guide rails of the shaft, and a spring mechanism attached to the platform that released bars to catch in the teeth when the rope broke.

Otis dramatically demonstrated his invention at the Crystal Palace, which was described in The New-York Daily Tribune on May 30, 1854: “Extending our sketches of the new machinery, we may commence by alluding to an Elevator, or machine for hoisting goods, (exhibited by Mr. E. G. Otis of Yonkers, N.Y,) which attracts attention both by its prominent position and the apparent daring of the inventor, who, as he rides up and down upon the platform occasionally cuts the rope by which it is supported.”

Elisha_OTIS_1854

Elisha Otis demonstrating his new safety elevator. (Wikimedia Commons)

Otis’s invention was simple and helped dispel fears about elevators at a time when there were many accidents, said Lee Gray, an architectural historian at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and author of From Ascending Rooms to Express Elevators: A History of the Passenger Elevator in the 19th Century. “It was perceived as something that could be very useful,” Gray said.

Even though elevators were not yet used for passengers, Otis’s invention is one of many that led to what we consider the modern elevator. More than 150 years later, Nick Paumgarten elegantly described the impact this technology has on today’s world: “Two things make tall buildings possible: the steel frame and the safety elevator. The elevator, underrated and overlooked, is to the city what paper is to reading and gunpowder is to war.”

More than 1 million people attended the New York exhibition by the time it closed on Nov. 1, 1854. Even though the event lost $300,000, it is credited with setting off a tourist boom in the city – many hotels were built to accommodate visitors. The Crystal Palace continued functioning as an exhibit hall until it burned down in 1858.

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