On 15 March 15, 1892, the young Jesse W. Reno, one of five children of the Civil War hero (who, just for the record, our Biggest Little City is named after), patented his moving stairs or inclined elevator as he called it.
With a rather inauspicious curtain opener, Reno created a novelty ride at the Old Iron Pier in Coney Island, N.Y., a moving platform if you will, that elevated passengers on a conveyor belt at a 25 degree angle to another level from which they now had to walk down.
You had to hold on tight with this design because the steps were also inclined at a 25 degree angle causing many people to stand sideways, one foot higher than the other.
Although a little hard on the feet, Reno used his profits from that venture to begin a small production facility, eventually founding the Reno Electric Stairways and Conveyors company in 1902.
Reviewing his patent today (470,918), it seems to have most of the things we take for granted in an escalator.
The moving belt was made of sections of cast iron and had grooves cut into it to comb people off of the steps at the end, preventing them from getting caught as the belt turned around a large end roller below the floor level.
It also incorporated a moving handrail to which passengers could grab onto for “… the feeling of security and comfort as they move along.” A great invention for its time but one other people were working on as well.
Jesse W. Reno.
In 1896, Chicago engineer Charles Seeberger came up with an idea for a spiral type escalator that also used a moving belt. His design was novel in that it had separations that rode in grooves on the upwards helix to the next floor.
About the same time George Wheeler of New York invented a flat step escalator and received patent 617,788 for his design. This one allowed people to stand upright comfortably as they moved between floors.
All of this people-moving business was newsworthy and eventually attracted the attention of the Otis Elevator company — a leader in the enterprise of transporting people vertically from one floor to another.
By 1899, Seeberger bought out Wheeler’s patent, probably realizing it was an improvement over his own, and coined the name “escalator” from the word “scala,” which is Latin for steps and the word “elevator.”
He was hired by Otis as a design engineer. Sensing escalators might intrude on their elevators, the Yonkers, N.Y., business invested heavily in its design and produced the first commercial one in direct competition with Reno’s company in 1899.
Within a short time the new Otis wooden escalator — with Seeberger’s help — won first prize at the Paris 1900 Exposition. Seeberger eventually sold his patents to Otis in 1910 and the next year Reno followed suit.
According to Otis history, “In the 1920s, Otis engineers, led by David Lindquist, combined and improved the Jesse Reno and Charles Seeberger escalator designs, and created the cleated, level steps of the modern escalator in use today.”
Over the years, Otis dominated the escalator business but lost the product’s trademark.
The word escalator lost its proprietary status and its capital “e” in 1950 when the U.S. Patent Office ruled the word “escalator” had become just a common descriptive term for moving stairways.
Just like Kleenex and Jell-O, the word was used so much it became part of our vocabulary.