How Elevators Really Work

You use them at the office and wait for them at hotels — elevators are ubiquitously present metallic beasts of burden. The 1800s brought new construction ideas into this world with the advent of revolutionary iron and steel production processes. Architects and engineers threw caution to the wind and started using their genius minds to construct buildings that looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.

The only reason you can scale these gargantuan models of architecture is the elevator. Imagine living in a city like New York without one — as if not being able to drive around was not bad enough!

Not limited to just high-rises, these boxes of metal also come in handy when you are taking your grandma to the doctor’s or for handicapped people needing access to multistoried buildings.

Types of Elevators

If you want to understand how an elevator works, just imagine a compartment system being able to move because of the lifting system it is attached to. That is the plan for a basic elevator. The modern freight and passenger ones are way more elaborate. The two major designs in use today are:

Hydraulic: A cylinder is attached to a fluid-pumping system. This system has a reservoir, a pump, and a valve between the reservoir and cylinder. When the pump forces the fluid into the cylinder, it pushes a piston up which lifts the elevator car.


Since a motor powers the pump, when you press the button to go to the 325th floor, the control system asks very nicely and the motor turns the pump off. The fluid in the cylinder stays in and the piston rests on it, keeping the car in place.

When the car needs to go back down, the control system signals the valve again which opens to let the fluid out. The car’s weight— and yours —push the piston down and the car moves.

Roped: The more popular design is the roped elevator. In them, the car moves by traction steel ropes rather than being pushed from below. Those ropes have been looped around a pulley with grooves around it. The pulley grips the ropes, rotating the ropes when it moves too. A motor moves the pulley, turning one way to raise the elevator and lowering it by moving the other way.

Congratulations. You now know more about elevators than 99.9 percent of the world’s population.

How Safe Are New York Elevators?

The use of modern elevators started way back in 1857. So why do we keep hearing about elevator accidents.

Are Elevators Really Safe?

Are elevators really safe? Elevator expert and consultant Charles A. Buckman says they are: “Riding in an elevator is safer than riding in a New York cab, for example. Elevators are the safest mode of transportation in the country, without exception.”

Need numbers to settle down your pitter patter heart every time you ride one? How about 0.00000015%? This is the probability of any accident happening during one of the 18 billion trips made in one year!

How Safe Are They?

Occupational Health & Safety (2009) reported the presence of a redundancy of safety features on elevators, making the risk of elevator failure next to impossible. Some of them being:

Cables: Elevators can have anywhere from 4-8 times more cables to hold them in place than they require. This number depends on a “factor of safety.” For a building that has a 12 factor of safety, it means all the ropes must hold a mass that is 12 times that of a fully loaded car. You can take it to mean that each cable is strong enough to hold more than the car itself weighs!

Automatic Braking Systems: Present at both the top and bottom of the shaft. Working in case of an error in the safety chain, these brakes do not function in a way car brakes do. When the clamp stops the pulley present above the car, the elevator stops moving. It will stay there unless there is power that releases it, which means you are safe, in case of power failure.

Electromagnetic Brakes: These brakes are further protection, found at the bottom of the elevator. In case of an overspeeding elevator, the brake gets jammed into a channel found in the metal rods along which it travels. As friction builds, the car comes to a stop.

Shock Absorber System: A heavy-duty absorber is found at the bottom of the shaft.

Counterweights: On both ends of the cables, is a set of counterweights, which are slightly heavier than an empty car. If all the emergency systems fail to kick in and there is a single passenger inside, these weights make the elevator go up rather than descend. In case of a fully loaded car, the descent is slowed down to make it safer.

Pre-Run Checks: Automatically done by the elevator, if something is found to be amiss, power to the motor will be cut, and brakes applied. Examples are the door being open, overspeed or the emergency stop button has been pushed etc.

What You May Not Know About Modern Elevators

  • That button for closing the elevator door you keep pressing? Yeah, does not work! Ever since the 90s, only the key held by authorities can do that.
  • The only incident with a snapped cable happened in 1945.
  • Elevators are safer than escalators – about 20 times safer.
  • The purpose of inventing Elevator music was calming fearful passengers.
  • The amount of people that use the Otis Elevator Company in five days are the equivalent of the population of the world!

What would Miss Manners Say About Your Elevator Etiquette?

Just as common etiquette expects people to let others know if they’re running late for meetings and appointments, elevator etiquette expects those waiting for an elevator to let those who want to get out do so before they get in.

Additionally, taking safety into account, those riding an elevator should never use the stop button unless there is an emergency, and everybody in an elevator should always respect those sharing the ride. In fact, when it comes to elevator etiquette, mutual respect for others in an elevator is paramount.

It really isn’t rocket science, and it doesn’t require special training. But for people who don’t appreciate the importance of good old-fashioned manners, it can prove to be a little tough.

Who Should Get Into the Elevator First?

When people get in line, it’s a given that the first in line gets to go first. The problem with elevators is that people generally don’t get in line. Usually those waiting for the elevator just hang around the door. But you’ve got to be oblivious not to notice people who were there before you. So, generally, people should allow those who got there first to get in first. However, practice common-sense manners by allowing the elderly and disabled and others who may need assistance to get in first. Isn’t that’s what you would (or should) do if you got on a bus and there were only a couple of seats left? In other words, let anyone who needs it more than you have it first.

If the elevator is already crammed, give it a miss, even if someone inside tells you to squeeze in.

Conversation in an Elevator

Elevators are, by nature, confined spaces, and when there are lots of people sharing a confined space, conversation is a no-no. You are not expected to make conversation with those you are traveling with, and it is considered rude if people you don’t know try to chat. You should never have phone conversations in a crowded elevator, and if you really need to talk to the person you know who is standing next to you, elevator etiquette demands that you both speak quietly.

Getting out of the Elevator

Conventional good manners dictate that women should exit first, but that isn’t always possible, particularly when the elevator is very full. If it is crammed, it’s advisable to tell those with you just before the elevator reaches your floor. That way they can move aside. Good etiquette requires you to excuse yourself if you have to pass close to people to exit, and to say “thank you” when they move to one side. Pushing is not an option.

People who are at the front of the elevator should, if necessary, exit to allow others off, and then re-board.

Anybody with good manners is sure to have good elevator etiquette. It’s that simple.