This is Matt Croydon and you are listening to The Tinycast.
These days we humans think we have skyscraper transportation all figured out. If you walk in to the lobby of a building and want to go to the 23rd floor, you know exactly what to do. You find the elevator, push the button, the doors open, you get in the car and are whisked away vertically to your destination. Need to get from one floor to another in a department store? Maybe you’ll use an escalator instead.
But there was a time before modern elevators and escalators were the de facto standards in vertical transportation. There is another kind of elevator that works completely differently than the ones you are used to. It’s a relic of that time before we figured out how to best move humans up and down inside buildings. If it were an animal it would be on the endangered species list. It’s called the paternoster.
Instead of a single car moving up and down a shaft, a paternoster, sometimes called a cyclic elevator, is a series of open-front boxes in constant motion. These boxes are connected to two belts and two giant wheels at the top and two at the bottom of the shaft. If you were to walk up to a paternoster you would see cars constantly going up on one side and down on the other.
Rather than wait for the elevator doors to open, you just pick a direction, find an empty car, and hop on. When you get to the floor you want to go to, you hop off.
To understand why the paternoster is in trouble, you have to understand its way more popular older brother, the elevator. The era of the modern elevator probably began at the Worlds Fair at the Crystal Palace in New York City. Here in 1853 Elisha Otis dramatically demonstrated his new elevator safety brake. He stood on a platform high above the crowd. His son cut the rope holding the platform aloft. His device brought the platform to a swift stop.
This demonstration and the publicity around it turned the tide of public opinion. Riding on a platform suspended from a cable turned from the stuff of daring to a part of everyday life in America over the next decades.
Things were a little different in Europe. They looked on with interest and a little terror at what those crazy industrialist Americans were doing. Cities in Europe were much older than places like New York and Chicago. Laws, like the London Building Act of 1894 and others like it throughout Europe often capped building height. This was often for firefighting or safety reasons, preserving city layout and architecture, or a combination of those.
Without a need to optimize the vertical transport of humans to dizzying heights, engineers and architects in Europe were solving an essentially different problem.
The paternoster, or something very close to it was invented by Peter Ellis and installed in Oriel Chambers in Liverpool in 1868. Ellis designed and built the building a few years earlier to replace another that had burned to the ground. His “fireproof” iron and glass design was one of the earliest metal and glass curtain wall buildings ever built. It was bright and airy and way ahead of its time. It was also poorly received by local architects and tastemakers. In the 1960’s, architect and author Quentin Hughes guessed that this poor reception to Ellis’ architecture ultimately led him to focus less on buildings and more on civil and mechanical engineering.
By 1873, Ellis had stopped paying stamp duties on his patent and it became invalid. In 1877 Peter Hart obtained a patent for what would be called Hart’s Cyclic Elevator. As far as anyone can tell it’s really just a minor variation on Ellis’ earlier design, and two members of the Liverpool Historical Society believe that Ellis was paid to let his patent lapse. Hart’s Cyclic Elevator is described in an issue of Scientific American Supplement in 1882 and compared to a chain of pots, except, you know, big enough for people.
Paternosters become popular in England, and were brought to Germany by Freiherr von Ohlendorff, a merchant who had a paternoster installed in Hamburg in 1885. The paternoster caught on with the bureaucracy, and maybe 250 of them remain throughout Germany today.
But they’re under constant threat of disappearing forever. New construction of paternosters was forbidden in Germany in 1974 and they were almost banned completely in 1994. Only the outcry of paternoster-lovers kept that from happening. More recently, laws went into effect on June 1st, 2015 that prohibited their use by anyone who hadn’t taken a class in how to use them safely. Sanity prevailed later that month and on June 24th, Cabinet ministers decided that anyone could again ride the paternosters as long as there were enough warning signs nearby.
There are still a handful of paternosters in England. The tallest is in the Attenborough Building at the University of Leicester. There’s one in Northwick Park Hospital in London too, but you can’t ride it. Paternosters were also popular in Prague, and a handful are still running there, but so many more have been shut down throughout Europe.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m a dorky kind of Lorax, and I speak for the paternosters. Folks are quick to characterize them as dangerous or scary, but when you think about it, getting in and out of a paternoster is probably a lot like getting on or off an escalator.
So ride them while you can, if you’re nearby. Ride one on your next trip if that’s what it takes. They’re resilient little machines that have been on the edge of extinction for as long as I’ve known about them, and they’re fiercely defended by the people that love riding them.
If you want to stand in solidarity with the paternoster, send me a tweet @mc or @thetinycast. The first five people to mention paternoster will get a SAVE THE PATERNOSTER sticker mailed to them. If you want one for yourself you can grab it at tinycast.in/shop.
You have been listening to The Tinycast, the little podcast that goes around and around about interesting things. If you’d like to know more about Elisha Otis and his safety brake, I highly recommend you find the episode Six Stories on 99% Invisible or The Memory Palace. It’s pretty fantastic.
I have a ton of links to books, videos, articles from the 19th century and other stuff on our website, tinycast.in. Check it out if you want to dig deeper.
Your ears do not deceive you. Music for today’s show is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. You can find more of his stuff on Soundcloud, Bandcamp and on podcasts like Reply All and Welcome to Macintosh. This episode also features the field recording A Paternoster at Charles University, Prague by Steven Dye and found on Sound Transit.
Today’s show is brought to you by audible.com where you can get a free audiobook and a 30 day free trial by visiting audible.tinycast.in. Might I suggest Charlie in the Great Glass Elevator, the sequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Or, perhaps The Ersatz Elevator, book 6 in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Get your free trial at audible.tinycast.in.
Episodes are also available at the Public Radio Exchange, PRX.org.
- More on Peter Ellis