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.