August 3, 2010
Being stuck in an elevator is never fun, but by and large when riding in one that’s the biggest inconvenience you can expect.
However, there was a time when these contraptions lacked the safety features we take for granted and were much deadlier. And let’s face it, the notion of meeting your mortal end while riding up a few floors to the housewares section is a bit of a buzzkill.
Inventor Elisha Graves Otis, born this day in 1811, helped to change all that. Elevators themselves were not new and were used in ancient Rome’s Colosseum spectacles. (Though those were powered by hand.) By the 1850s, most companies were using hydraulically-powered hoists to lift freight. But Otis saw the potential for disaster. Frayed ropes or broken engine belts could send the elevator platforms crashing to the ground, seriously harming—if not killing—anyone aboard and damaging goods. In 1852, he introduced his safety elevator which was equipped with knurled rollers that would grab on to a guidepost should the elevator enter a state of free fall. After successful demonstrations of his device at the 1854 New York World’s Fair, orders started pouring in for Otis’ hoisting machine and his basic principles for elevator safety are still used today.
So yes, being stuck in an elevator is never fun. But being stuck in an elevator with bad music being piped over the sound system may very well be a fate worse than death. Though lacking a legal background, I’d venture to say that prolonged exposure to syrupy strings and hammond organs may meet the standard for cruel and unusual punishment. I partially jest—in spite of its reputation, there are a lot of positive things to be said for creating a sonic atmosphere in public places, as the New Yorker affirms in this 2006 piece on the Muzak corporation.
Though thoroughly familiar with the music we hear in the elevator, what about songs about the elevator? That’s where Smithsonian Folkways helps to fill in the gaps with its fabulously eclectic catalog.
First up is The Downtown Story, a 1959 children’s recording, which tells the music-laced tale of a young girl accompanying her mother into the city. And wouldn’t you know it, when the pair hit up the department store, there’s a whole song devoted to the elevator.
Another fun recording is Science Fiction Sound Effects Record (also 1959, a very good year apparently for elevator songs) which has two tracks that will surely help you envision the elevators of the future with tunes like “Elevator Descending” and “Elevator.”
All set? Good. Safe travels to all of you the next time you hop aboard an elevator car—and maybe you’ll have a mind to hum some Smithsonian-grade elevator music.
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