The Evolution of Lifts

When it comes to how lifts have changed, it’s a topic that spans multiple centuries – dating back over 2000 years! If you’re wanting to see how lifts have evolved from basic pulley systems to the modern high-speed systems they’ve become today, you have come to the right place. 

Sheridan Lifts is a UK-based lift company that specialises in installing lifts in both residential and commercial spaces. We’ve got years of experience in staying ahead of the curve, but in this guide we’re taking a look backwards – showing you how lifts started out, and how they’ve advanced.

Without further ado, let’s dive into it. 

The Evolution of Lifts

The History of Lifts

Starting with the basics, a lift is simply a shaft or device that raises and lowers people and/or goods from one floor to another in tall buildings. In modern society, lifts are a necessity in many buildings – they are not only used for moving people and goods, but they can also be used for accessibility purposes. 

However, how much do you really know about the history of lifts? 

In particular, how have lifts changed from their first conception to their applications now in today’s world?

Let’s find out.

The Earliest Records of Lifts

The earliest known reference to a lift can be traced back to the Classical era. Here, the works of Roman architect, Vitruvius, reported that Archimedes built the first lift in around 236 BC. Lifts during this time were often powered by people or animals and made from hemp rope. 

In the years following, there were other references and records of lifts including:

  • 80 AD – The completion of the Roman Colosseum saw approximately 25 lifts that were used to raise animals between levels. When powered by up to 8 men, each lift was able to carry 270kg up 23 feet. 
  • 1000 – The Book of Secrets, authored by Ibn Khalaf al-Muradi, described a contraption that was similar to a lift, used to raise a large battering ram to destroy a fortress in Islamic Spain. 
  • 1743 – King Louis XV of France ordered the construction of a ‘flying chair’ to be installed outside his balcony at the Château de Versailles in 1743. This ‘flying chair’ acted as a passenger lift and was operated by hand. 
  • 1793 – The first lift to be based on the screw drive system was built by Ivan Kulibin, installed in the Winter Palace in Russia. 

Before Kulibin’s invention, ancient lifts typically used drive systems based on windlasses and hoists. The invention of the screw drive system marked an important milestone in lift technology, establishing the foundation of modern passenger lifts

The Origins of Modern Lifts

Modern lifts that we see and use today are certainly not the same as the lifts used in ancient and mediaeval times. How lifts have changed since then is due to the impact of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. 

Industrialisation demanded the movement of raw materials such as coal and lumber in mines and factories. As a result, to accommodate this need – plus the invention of steel beam construction – the development of steam-powered passenger and freight lifts ensued. 

A timeline of the evolution of lifts during this period involves:

  • 1823 – London architects, Burton and Homer, built a tourist attraction, the ‘ascending room’, elevating customers to a certain height and offering them a panoramic view of the city. 
  • 1845 – Another ‘flying chair’ (but not the same as King Louis XV’s contraption) was created and installed in the Royal Palace of Caserta by architect Gaetano Genovese. The device included a hand-operated signal and was able to be activated from the outside, with traction controlled by a motor mechanic of a toothed wheels system. 
  • 1846 – The hydraulic crane was created by Sir William Armstrong, operated by a water pump that used water pressure to move the platform. This was used to load cargo onto ships. 
  • 1852 – The safety elevator was pioneered by Elisha Otis (who later founded the Otis Elevator Company). This safety elevator made sure that, if the cable of the lift snapped, the cab wouldn’t fall. 
  • 1868 – English architect, Peter Ellis, installed the first paternoster elevators in Oriel Chambers in Liverpool.
  • 1870 – New York’s The Equitable Life Building became the first office building with passenger elevators.
  • 1872 – James Wayland patented a method of securing lift shafts with doors that automatically opened and closed as the lift car approached and left. 
  • 1880 – Werner von Siemens introduced the first electric elevator in Germany, later enhanced and further developed by Anton Freissler and Frank Sprague. 
  • 1892 – Otis installed the first elevator in India at the Raj Bhavan in Kolkata.
  • 1900 – Fully automated elevators are available at this time, but were not commonly used due to reluctance from passengers.

Future applications of elevators would use the brilliance of these inventors and architects, particularly their methods of minimising risk of failure and death, which paved the way for modern day lifts that we ultimately use and see in our daily life.

Lifts Growing in Popularity

Elevators in general have been a key part of architectural design, especially in terms of the construction of skyscrapers and multi-storey buildings – the Home Insurance Building (the world’s first modern skyscraper) in Chicago built in 1885 with 4 elevators for its 10 floors proves this. 

Buildings decorated the world’s skylines, and especially in the USA, this meant the installation of lifts in many (tall) residential buildings in major cities like New York. This led to the prominence of luxurious ‘penthouses’ – the coveted top floor of such apartment buildings. 

Without lifts, the construction of these buildings wouldn’t have been possible. 

How did confidence in lifts grow?

Although the development of lifts was continuous throughout the 19th century and towards the 20th century, it was only around the mid-20th century that lifts properly started growing in popularity and usage. 

In 1945, a lift operator strike occurred in New York, which introduced emergency lift and calming features such as:

  • Emergency stop button
  • Emergency telephone
  • Automated voice 
  • Lift music

All of the above aided in the adoption of lifts, particularly as they helped to reassure passengers that they would be safe in the lift, even during an emergency or sudden breakdown. The implementation of mirrors inside the lift was also made for this same reason, enabling the space to feel less claustrophobic and safer for passengers. 

As passengers were given peace of mind with lift safety – plus the actual need to use lifts grew, especially in cities where buildings climbed to greater heights – the adoption of lifts became wider spread, cementing their importance in modern-day society.

Modern Lifts

Modern lifts are now increasingly customisable, with features, systems, and controls that can be tailored according to the needs of the building owner. Compared to lifts in the previous century, modern lifts are faster, safer, and come in a variety of designs and styles that can be applied in a range of settings. 

The push from hydraulic lifts to electric lifts by the turn of the 20th century is a great example of how lifts have changed. Although hydraulic lifts still exist and continue to be installed today, new innovations are expanding the horizon. 

We now see multiple lifts in a single building, with grand capabilities of carrying passengers and goods at efficient speeds. Why not have a browse through Sheridan Lifts’ case studies to see modern lifts in action and whether our services are what you might require?

In the meantime, let’s also take a look at a few famous buildings with modern lifts installed that showcase why lifts nowadays are the epitome of convenience, efficiency, and luxury. 

  • Burj Khalifa, Dubai – The tallest building in the world spans a total height of 2,722 feet. It encompasses 163 floors with 57 double-deck elevators – of which are considered to be the fastest double-deck elevators in the world. Even more impressive is the distance that they’re able to travel – 504 metres, with a speed of 10 metres per second. 
  • The Shanghai Tower, Shanghai – Previously the second tallest building in the world, it boasts 114 elevators – 3 of which have the ability to operate at ultra-high speeds of 1,230 metres per minute. Despite their super-fast speeds, noise reduction technologies have allowed these elevators to be silent and fast for the ultimate riding comfort. 
  • Empire State Building, New York – 102-storey skyscraper includes 73 automatic elevators (originally 64 elevators built by the Otis Elevator Company) of varying heights. They were manually operated until 1966 when they were replaced with automatic units. Since the completion of its build, the building has gone through a number of changes and renovations, including its elevators. 
  • The Eiffel Tower, Paris – About the same height as a 81-storey building, it is the tallest structure in Paris with 3 levels and 8 elevators. The elevators at every pillar of the Eiffel Tower have been renovated or revised since its inauguration in 1889, meaning that its elevators have continuously been modernised according to the elevator technology that was available at the time. 

You’ll find various types of lifts within iconic landmarks like those above, so there’s not a simple ‘one size fits all’ solution when it comes to modern lifts in commercial buildings and structures

However, one thing is certain – you always have the option of refurbishing your lifts. Not only is this crucial regarding the safety and compliance of your lifts, but it can also help with the performance and appearance of your lifts as well.

Modernising your lifts, especially if you own older buildings that were constructed decades to a century ago, is a critical aspect of renovating a building and ensuring that anyone who steps foot onto your lifts can be transported safely.

Hydraulic vs Traction Lifts

There are typically two main categories of lift equipment regarding lift installation: hydraulic lift and traction lift. Whilst there are certainly others, these two systems dominate the space. So, what’s the difference between the two?

Firstly, let’s take a look at hydraulic lifts. As mentioned previously, this system was pioneered by Sir William Armstrong in 1846. It involves the pressurisation of a piston, mounted inside of a hydraulic cylinder, that raises and lowers the lift car. 

Some aspects of this type of system to consider are:

  • Ideal for low-traffic and low level buildings (typically up to 5 storeys)
  • Piston is fluid-driven, usually oil-based 
  • Cylinders can be installed above ground (holeless/roped) or below ground
  • Consumes more energy than traction lifts as the pump has to work significantly to push the car upwards and then loses this energy when the cab goes back down
  • Risk of fluid leaking from the lifting cylinder into the ground
  • The above is countered by the invention of holeless hydraulic lifts
  • Operate slower than other types of lifts 
  • Lower installation costs

Meanwhile, traction lifts are powered by alternating current (AC) or direct current (DC) electrical motors, raising and lowering the cab using a pulley system with traction steel ropes or belts. 

You can expect the following with a traction lift system:

  • Better energy efficiency compared to hydraulic lifts – uses less energy since a counterweight is utilised to offset the amount of power that’s required to move the cab (due to the weight of passengers and cab)
  • Can be geared or gearless – the latter was invented by Elisha Graves Otis in 1913
  • Smaller motor size required 
  • Smooth rides 
  • Able to travel at higher speeds 
  • Ideal for buildings that require over 60 feet of travel 
  • Option of machine room less (MRL) traction lifts wherein a small gearless motor is placed inside the shaft itself to save space
  • Expensive initial installation cost

The type of lift for your space is dependent on your individual circumstances, needs, and purpose when it comes to lift installation. No matter your preferences, don’t forget to consult with a lift expert who can offer you sound advice and information about the most suitable type of lift for your specific project.

At Sheridan Lifts, our consultants can help you do exactly this. Get in touch with our team should you have any questions or enquiries about the type of lift that you need. 

The Future of Lifts – Faster, Better, More Eco-Friendly

So, what is the future of lifts?

It goes without saying that climate change concerns and rising energy prices are affecting the lift industry. In an age where we’re able to do a quick Google search with results popping up instantly, it’s not surprising that there’s a demand for faster and more energy-efficient lifts

Paired with the fact that buildings are becoming increasingly taller, there is definitely a need for speed when it comes to lift installations in modern buildings. How lifts have changed since the 19th century is simple – they’re faster and more efficient, and this is all due to demand.

In terms of sustainability, eco-friendly elevators in buildings that are BREEAM (Building Research Establishment’s Environmental Assessment Method) rated are also in the works. As a result, many new lifts are being constructed with the idea that they need to be sustainable without compromising their quality and performance. 

You’ll find such lifts have energy-efficient features like:

  • LED lighting – LED bulbs are more energy efficient than fluorescent and incandescent bulbs, and they often have a longer lifespan too.
  • Standby mode – When the lift isn’t in use, it instantly goes into standby mode to help conserve energy.
  • Regenerative drive systems – This feeds back energy into the system, minimising energy loss and saves money in the long run. 

With the above characteristics, these lifts can help reduce your building’s carbon emissions and your overall carbon footprint. When it comes to energy performance, a traction lift performs more efficiently and at a faster rate compared to a hydraulic lift. 

The Evolution of Lifts

How Lift Regulations Have Changed

Discussing how lifts have evolved isn’t complete without also exploring how the lift regulations have changed throughout the years. Along with the advancements in lift technology and engineering, lift standards have also evolved over time and what is the norm now may not have been a decade or so ago. 

As such, it’s important to also understand and reflect on how lift regulations have changed. In particular, UK lift companies, property owners, and even business owners are required to comply with a number of regulations regarding lift installation and lift usage

The laws and regulations that you might have to adhere to include:

You will find that lift regulations such as LOLER dictate that the property owner or person in charge of the lifts must ensure that the lifts are safe to use – they have a duty of care to persons that use the lifts. 

This is done by regular maintenance and servicing by a qualified lift engineer, such as our team here at Sheridan Lifts. 

The Impact of the UK Leaving the EU on Lift Regulations 

Although the UK’s exit from the EU occurred several years ago, there wasn’t much change in terms of how the exit affected lift regulations. Instead, there were only some changes in terminology and documentation surrounding lift standards in the UK.

For example, what was previously the EU Harmonised Standards, now is the UK’S Designated Standards (British Standards). Similarly, the CE mark for goods sold in the UK has also been replaced by the UKCA mark. 

Nonetheless, it is still critical that both lift engineers and lift owners keep up to date with relevant legislation to ensure that they are aware of their compliance with lift regulations, keeping the safety of lift passengers in mind. 

Designated Standards 

Also known as British Standards, these are the codes of practice and standards that guide and recommend lift selection, installation, or the technical requirements of a lift. Whilst some are published by the UK Government on their website, others can also be found published by recognised standardisation bodies like:

As of March 2023, the latest standards were amended on 22 September 2022. These standards are in support of The Lifts Regulations 2016

The most important ones to keep in mind include:

  • BS EN 81 series including BS EN 81-20:2020 (replaced BS EN 81-1:1998 and BS EN 81-2:1998) – safety rules regarding the construction and installation of electric/traction lifts and hydraulic lifts 
  • BS 5655:2002 Part 6:2011 – indicates the code of practice for selecting and installing new passenger and platform lifts
  • BS 8300:2018 Part 1 and BS 8300:2018 Part 2 (superseded BS 8300:2009 version) – details guidance on building accessibility both externally (Part 1) and internally (Part 2), including lifts 
  • BS EN 13015:2001+A1:2008 – rules for maintenance instructions regarding lifts and escalators 
  • BS 7255:2012 – safe working on lifts 
  • BS 9102:2014 – safe working on lifting platforms 
  • BS 9999 and BS 9991 – fire safety in design, management, and use of building evacuation 
  • ISO/DIS 25745-1 – uniform method of measuring energy consumption of lifts, moving walkways and escalators 

It is worth noting that sometimes these standards may be withdrawn or amended by the relevant standardisation bodies, and possibly the UK Government as well. As a result, it’s good practice to periodically check or keep updated with lift standards. 

Our Compliance with Lift Regulations

At Sheridan Lifts, you can rest assured that we are a lift company that is 100% compliant with relevant legislation and standards. In fact, we hold a number of accreditations and certifications that prove we’reapplying best practices in both commercial and residential properties. 

A few examples of the accreditations and certifications we hold are:

  • ISO 14001:2015 Certification – approved environmental management system; environmental performance is improved through efficient and sustainable business practices 
  • SafeContractor Accreditation – recognised capabilities for health and safety
  • LEIA Membership – Lift and Escalator Industry Association (LEIA) is a reputable association that is affiliated with other influential bodies

Modern Lift Installations and Maintenance with Sheridan Lifts

There you have it, the evolution of lifts as of the 21st century. From pulley systems that were motorised by manpower, to steam-powered devices that still required an operator, to modern lifts as we know them today – electric and automatic… how lifts have changed has certainly been reliant on technological advancements. 

Technology is constantly advancing, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see that lift technology evolves within the next few decades.

If so, Sheridan Lifts is here to assist you with your modern lift projects. We are a leading UK lift company, with over 40 years worth of experience, that offers a wide range of lift services including lift installations and lift maintenance and repairs

Our repair line is open 24/7, so our lift engineers can be there for you whenever you experience an unexpected lift breakdown

If you’re looking for a company that prioritises your needs and considers your financial circumstances, look no further than Sheridan Lifts. Contact our friendly team today for more information about our lift services.