An uplifting story: The escalator just had its 125th birthday

escalator at museum
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter/ Ruhr Museum, Essen, with what was the longest escalator in Europe

On TreeHugger we often say, "Take the stairs!" But escalators have changed how we get around.

There is the wonderful Thomas M. Disch short story, Descending, about being trapped on an escalator. Normally that is a joke on its own, but in this case, it was a horror story about a trip that never ended:

Dazedly, and as though to deny the reality of this seemingly interminable stairwell, he continued his descent. When he stopped again at the forty-fifth landing, he was trembling. He was afraid.

Days later, thousands of floors down, he finally reaches what he thinks is the end of his journey down and that his troubles are over.

He thought he had come to the bottom. It was a large, high-ceilinged room. Signs pointed to another escalator: Ascending. But there was a chain across it and a small typed announcement. "Out of order. Please bear with us while the escalators are being repaired. Thank you. The Management."

coney Island escalatorConey Island escalator, 1893/Public Domain

I thought of it yesterday, on the escalator's birthday. One hundred twenty-five years ago, on January 16, 1893, the first escalator opened at Coney Island in New York City. Escalators, being continuous, can move a lot of people. The original review of Jesse Reno's Inclined elevator described it:

A narrow include of this kind has been given a practical test at the old iron pier, Coney Island, this fall, with the idea of demonstrating its practicability to the trustees of the Brooklyn Bridge, the officers of the elevated roads and the Boston Subway. The capacity of a single file elevator is 3,000 people per hour, and by increasing the width the capacity can be correspondingly increased. The system is manifestly superior to vertical elevators for many places because people are handled by it continuously and without delay and no attendant is required.

And it proved hugely practicable; according to escalator builder THyssenKrupp,

The escalator ran for two weeks at Old Iron Pier before moving to the Brooklyn Bridge. It is estimated that it carried 75,000 passengers during its two weeks at the Old Iron Pier. Today, more than 100 billion people in the United States alone use escalators every year.


But sometimes they are silly; we have used this photo a hundred times. Escalators have a downside. Melissa has written that taking the stairs keeps your brain younger. I wrote a decade ago about The insanity of Escalators, complaining that they mostly run all the time and use a lot of electricity. "The national energy use of escalators is estimated at 2.6 billion kilowatt hours per year, equivalent to powering 375,000 houses; its cost is roughly $260 million." They are also "very complex, high maintenance devices, each tread a little cart running on rails, always exposed to dirt and road salt and crunched children's toes that gum up the works."

"You know, it's just stupid," says mechanical engineer Matt Dermond. "If you have a place like a mall, you could install an elevator for the elderly and the disabled and tell everyone else to take a walk. It's not the kind of machine that you can make practical. Because it's not."

escalator in washingtonLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But really, modern transit systems would be almost impossible without escalators. Getting people off the ground floor for uses like retail and restaurants would have been far harder to do.

Scotiabank theatreClimbing the stairs to the movies in Toronto/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

This theatre complex in Toronto was designed around escalators, and when they were being repaired recently it was easy to see how important they have become to us. I think I knew how Thomas M. Disch's protagonist felt. (Hurry up, ThyssenKrupp!)

Escalators probably haven't changed architecture as much as elevators did, but they certainly have played a major role. Happy 125th birthday!

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