Harry Potter elevators are coming … but so what?

New vertical transport technology could uplift cities – or just the hotels of Las Vegas and Abu Dhabi

March 8, 2015 1:00AM ET

When Elisha Graves Otis presented his improved safety elevator to the public at New York’s Crystal Palace in 1854, he didn’t know what he had on his hands. He still saw the elevator as a way to haul freight up and down industrial lofts safely enough for workers to ride along. It was years before he sold a passenger elevator, and there’s no evidence he considered the modern elevator’s most important contributions to society: buildings taller than people are willing to walk and cities with great height and population density.

Late last year the German multinational corporation ThyssenKrupp unveiled Multi, a new elevator design, which the company promised represents as big a paradigm shift in vertical transportation as Otis’ safety elevator did.

An elevator at the Ministry of Magic in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.”
Warner Bros.

ThyssenKrupp says Multi, a prototype of which will be built in 2016 in a test tower in Rottweil, Germany, will be faster, safer, more compact and more efficient than traditional elevators. Its magnetic levitation (maglev) technology will allow many elevator cars on a loop rather than only one or two cars per shaft. Traveling on those loops, Multi elevators may, like the Ministry of Magic lifts in the “Harry Potter” books, take strange paths through a building, turning at right angles to enable horizontal travel, with shafts branching into smaller loops and rejoining larger ones.

ThyssenKrupp predicts that Multi will lead to taller and weirder buildings than ever before. It may be right. Perhaps we’ll see it in skyscrapers, hotels, showy office towers and malls. Perhaps people will see the new architecture it enables and call it art, commerce or gentrification. But it’s more probable that, like Otis, these elevators will lack imagination. For better or worse, Multi could be so much more.

Ignoring history

Since the announcement, Multi has received scattered press, none of which examines ThyssenKrupp’s historical claims. It calls Multi “the world’s first rope-free elevator system.” This is off by at least 155 years: In the elevator he designed for the 1859 Fifth Avenue Hotel, engineer Otis Tufts ran a giant screw up the center of a circular elevator car, which was supported and locked in place by its engagement with the threads of the screw; the screw turned to make the car descend and rise. There was no cable.

Multi’s promotional video also claims that ThyssenKrupp was the first to put two cars in an elevator shaft in 2003 and that no one has ever put more than two in a shaft until now. But double-decker cars have been around since at least the 1930s — Patrick Carrajat, director of the Elevator Historical Society in New York City, says the first was installed in the Cities Service Building there, and shafts with multiple cars date back even farther.

ThyssenKrupp doesn’t mention that the elevator industry has been toying with Multi’s concept since the 1960s. Hitachi has long been working on a similar technology, and in 1996, Otis experimented with a model called the Odyssey, which also could shift from vertical to horizontal and include multiple cars in a shaft.

Most glaringly, ThyssenKrupp failed to mention to the public Multi’s debt to the paternoster, a kind of elevator popular in continental Europe in the early 20th century. In a paternoster — the name refers to the large beads on a rosary, on which the Our Father is said — a series of elevator cars on a cable moves continuously in a loop, up one shaft and down another. The paternoster does not stop; there are no doors on the compartments or shafts, and passengers leap on and off. (Check out paternosters in the restored version of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film “Metropolis,” the February issue of Elevator World magazine or on YouTube.) 

ThyssenKrupp’s new elevator is likely to be a gimmick for fancy hotels and malls, not one of the technologies that fundamentally transform urban life.
A paternoster in Parliament House in Helsinki in 2008.
Johannes Jansson / norden.org

Paternosters encourage conversation. People chat as they share a car or say hello to others standing at the elevator landings as cars pass. The open compartments and shafts ameliorate some of the claustrophobia that people feel in elevators. Jumping in and out is a thrill. But they seem scary to some people, and since World War II, European governments have declared them unsafe and decommissioned most of them.

At its announcement last year, ThyssenKrupp gave industry insiders a ride in a paternoster — one of the few that have not been decommissioned — in an apparent nod to Multi’s historical lineage. But its press release and promotional video make no mention of it, leaving the general public in the dark. Perhaps it was because of the paternoster’s unsafe reputation. But even this concern for safety is a little disingenuous. One study noted that five people were killed on paternosters in Germany from 1970 to 1993, which is actually quite safe, considering that in 1970 alone, 19,193 Germans were killed in road and highway accidents. During the same years, it’s likely that fewer Germans were killed in paternosters than tripping over their own feet. 

Beyond the building

Why misuse history when you can use it? The ThyssenKrupp press release could have started with an honest pedigree: Multi is a paternoster with maglev technology and doors on the cars and shafts, the latest in a line of experiments stretching back decades in the elevator industry. Drawing from that history, it could have then speculated on the truly transformative possibilities of maglev elevators: Multi could blur the lines between vertical and horizontal transportation, not just in a single building but for an entire metropolis. Maglev elevators could move people the way pneumatic tubes once transported small objects up, down and across cities. Building Multi systems that are larger than a single building sounds daunting, but imagine independent systems using a standard technology that eventually connect to one another and grow organically. Ultimately, the distinctions we make among elevators, subways and light rail could become obsolete.

Multi elevators could, of course, also make our public transportation systems less public. When individual cars can be removed from and returned to the general stream of traffic, they can be reserved like the private train cars of industrial magnates a century ago or, more recently, the exclusive Google buses in San Francisco. Destination dispatch elevators in offices and hotels have already begun this trend, with people punching in their destinations before the elevators arrive and being sorted according to floor, decreasing interaction among populations of different floors.

In the future, perhaps, business executives will step out of their offices and into elevator cars that take them through a system of tunnels to small landing platforms attached to their apartments, creating a daily commute completely devoid of human interaction. Perhaps the elevator car will become the office and we will all be in constant motion throughout the day, catching up on paperwork as we shuttle to our meetings. This new system could displace cars — and if so, it would no doubt be safer, less damaging to our ecology and probably faster than driving. But how boring and alienating and sad.

Multi? Maybe. It’s more likely that ThyssenKrupp’s new model will be the next glass elevator — a gimmick for fancy hotels and malls — not one of the technologies that fundamentally transform architecture and urban life, as masonry, plumbing, structural steel and the elevators of Tufts and Otis have. Maybe that’s for the best. 

Daniel Levinson Wilk is an associate professor of American history at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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