ANTONIO LÓPEZ | Tungsteno
From Archimedes to Louis XV's Versailles, humans have long yearned for a way to vertically transport people or goods. In the first elevators, known as hoists, the vertical movement was controlled by the pull of humans or animals, with the consequent degree of danger associated with the process. It was in the context of the Industrial Revolution that several innovations consolidated the elevator as a means of mass transport: steel and concrete made it possible to construct taller and more resistant buildings.
At the same time, the development of the subway in large cities increased the population density of urban centers, making it necessary for cities to grow vertically as well. That is when the safety of elevators became a necessity. The emergency braking system that Elisha Grave Otis applied to the elevator would revolutionize the urban landscape of the Big Apple in the coming years.
Elisha Grave Otis' emergency braking system made elevators popular, favoring high-rise construction and forever changing the appearance of cities. Credit: Otis.
Boost in high-rise construction
Otis publicly demonstrated his safety system in 1853 at the New York World's Fair, the first to be held in the United States. He had found a way to prevent elevators from plummeting to the ground even if the cable that held them broke, a development that would forever transform the social patterns of habitability in cities. The higher floors in buildings increased in value and became fashionable among the upper classes because of the extra light and lower noise levels. Before the elevator, buildings were on average five stories high and it was the working classes who climbed the corresponding stairs.
Only four years after this public demonstration, Otis installed the so-called "first ever elevator" in a department store on Broadway in New York City. The elevator was steam-powered and could climb five floors in just over a minute. Over the years, elevators became popular in commercial and residential buildings and many companies specialized in the elevator market. Among them, Otis himself founded the Otis Elevator Factory, a company that still exists today, and which installed lifts as emblematic as the five that go up to the first two levels of the Eiffel Tower, or the 73 that go up and down the Empire State Building.
Nowadays, elevators conquer the heights at great speed; in the Burj Khalifa building in Dubai, the highest in the world, they move at almost 60 kilometers per hour on a route of up to 828 metres. The lightness of new materials, such as carbon fiber, could even allow the new generation of lifts to rise to distances of more than one kilometer above the Earth's surface.
The dream of an elevator connecting the Earth to the Moon is closer. Several countries are already testing prototypes that could make the democratization of extraterrestrial transportation a reality. Credit: NASA.
The conquest of space
In the future, the lift could even escape the limits of the Earth. In 2019, a team of scientists said in a study that, with today's technology, an elevator capable of traveling into space could already be built. Although the idea of leaving the planet in an elevator has been around for centuries, this new scientific perspective gives a twist to the classic approach: the elevator cable would be anchored to the Moon's surface. Scientist and writer Neel V. Patel analyzed in the journal MIT Technology Review some of the obstacles that, nevertheless, remain key to the success of this potential elevator feat. Space debris could be a problem if it collided with the fixed trajectory of the elevator cables from the Earth to the Moon. In addition, purely physical factors, such as the Earth's gravity and the density of our atmosphere, would have to be taken into account when considering the feasibility of the project.
Far from being a science fiction scenario, in 2009 the European Space Agency (ESA) presented a prototype space elevator or bridge and, more recently, Japan has started testing its own experimental space lift. A technology such as the one proposed by today's scientists for the potential space elevator would revolutionize extraterrestrial transportation, just as New York City changed two centuries ago, by lowering costs and employing safety mechanisms that permit a frequent and safe flow of goods and passengers.
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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.