David Trotter at The London Review of Books:
According to elevator legend, it all began with a stunt. In the summer of 1854, at the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in New York, an engineer called Elisha Graves Otis gave regular demonstrations of his new safety device. Otis had himself hoisted into the air on a platform secured on either side by guide-rails and – at a suitably dramatic height – cut the cable. Instead of plummeting to the ground fifty feet below, the platform stopped dead after a couple of inches. ‘All safe, gentlemen, all safe,’ Otis would bellow at the expectant crowd. The device was simple enough: a flat-leaf cart spring above the platform splayed out to its full extent as soon as the cable was cut, engaging notches in the guide-rails. Has any mode of transport ever been safer? After 1854, malfunctioning (or non-existent) doors were the only direct risk still attached to travelling by lift. Safety first was not so much a motto as a premise. No wonder that the closest high-end TV drama has come to Sartrean nausea is the moment in Mad Menwhen a pair of elevator doors mysteriously parts in front of troubled genius Don Draper, who is left peering in astonishment down into a mechanical abyss. The cables coiling and uncoiling in the shaft stand in for the root of Roquentin’s chestnut tree.