Mar 232015


On this date in 1857 Elisha Otis installed his first elevator at 488 Broadway, New York City. Otis  (1811 –1861) was a U.S. industrialist, founder of the Otis Elevator Company, and inventor of a safety device that prevents elevators from falling if the hoisting cable fails. He worked on this device while living in Yonkers, New York in 1852, and had a finished product in 1854.

Otis was born in Halifax, Vermont to Stephen Otis, and Phoebe Glynn. He moved away from home at the age of 20, eventually settling in Troy, New York, where he lived for five years employed as a wagon driver. In 1834, he married Susan A. Houghton, and they had two children, Charles and Norton. Later that year, Otis suffered a terrible case of pneumonia which nearly killed him, but he earned enough money to move his wife and three-year-old son to the Vermont Hills on the Green River to convalesce. He designed and built his own gristmill, but did not earn enough money from it, so he converted it into a sawmill, yet still did not attract customers. Now having a second son, he started building wagons and carriages, at which he was fairly skilled. His wife later died, leaving Otis with two sons, one at that time being age 8 and the other still in diapers.

At 34 years old and hoping for a fresh start, he remarried and moved to Albany, New York. He worked as a doll maker for Otis Tingely. Skilled as a craftsman and tired of working all day to make only twelve toys, he invented and patented a robot turner. It could produce bedsteads four times as fast as could be done manually (about fifty a day). Otis then moved into his own business. At his leased building, he started designing a safety brake that could stop trains instantly and an automatic bread baking oven. He was put out of business when the stream he was using for a power supply was diverted by the city of Albany to be used for its fresh water supply. In 1851, having no more use for Albany, he first moved to Bergen City, New Jersey to work as a mechanic, then to Yonkers, New York, as a manager of an abandoned sawmill which he wished to convert into a bedstead factory. At the age of 40, while he was cleaning up the factory, he wondered how he could get all the old debris up to the upper levels of the factory. He had heard of hoisting platforms, but they often broke, and he didn’t want to take risks. He and his sons, who were also tinkerers, designed their own “safety elevator” and tested it successfully. He thought so little of it he neither patented it nor requested a bonus from his superiors for it, nor did he try to sell it. After having made several sales, and after the bedstead factory declined, Otis took the opportunity to make an elevator company out of it, initially called Union Elevator Works and later Otis Brothers & Co. No orders came to him over the next several months, but soon after, the 1854 New York World’s Fair offered a great chance at publicity. At the New York Crystal Palace, Elisha Otis amazed a crowd when he ordered the only rope holding the platform on which he was standing cut. The rope was severed by an axeman, and the platform fell only a few inches before coming to a halt. After the World’s Fair, Otis received continuous orders, doubling each year. He developed different types of engines, such as a three-way steam valve engine, which could switch the elevator between up, down, and stop rapidly.


In his spare time, he designed and experimented with his old designs of bread-baking ovens and train brakes, and patented a steam plow in 1857, a rotary oven in 1858, and, with Charles, the oscillating steam engine in 1860. Otis contracted diphtheria and died on April 8, 1861 at age 49.

The Otis Elevator Company is now the world’s largest manufacturer of vertical transportation systems, principally focusing on elevators and escalators. Otis has installed elevators in some of the world’s most famous structures, including the Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, the original World Trade Center, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Petronas Twin Towers, Burj Khalifa, CN Tower, the Hotel del Coronado, the “Pizza Elevator” at Lake Point Tower, and the Skylon Tower.

Statistically, Otis is the world’s most popular transportation company. It is estimated that the equivalent of the world’s population travels in Otis elevators, escalators and moving walkways every three days. According to United Technologies, Otis elevators alone carry the equivalent of the world’s population every nine days.


From the sublime to the ridiculous: yesterday I had to pick a recipe using water and today I have to have an elevator theme !! More of a challenge than I can manage. However, Otis also worked on developing the rotary oven which gives me a little leverage. The rotary oven has shelves or platters that revolve gently so that baking items receive even heat during the cooking process. The challenge for Otis was to create a mechanism for rotating the shelves before the days of electric motors. His invention, and others like it, used steam engines, which apparently were quite successful. For example, the Scottish born Australian baker William Arnott established the William Arnott’s Steam Biscuit Factory in Newcastle, New South Wales in 1865 using steam powered rotary ovens. Arnott’s is still the largest biscuit (cookie) manufacturer in Australia – fond memories from my boyhood.


Rotary ovens are used primarily for baked goods including biscuits and breads. But they are not for the home cook. They produce commercial quantities of baked goods. You don’t really need one at home because it is easy enough to reach into your oven and turn trays around for even baking. But when you are baking on a large scale they are invaluable.

There’s not really such a thing as a rotary oven recipe. You just use your favorite cookie or bread recipe. So, take your pick. I’m not much of a baker but I do like to make a gingerbread house at Christmas. My masterpiece was a replica of Caernarvon castle replete with a battle scene. Took me one year to paint all the knights and soldiers and the second to build the castle. A friend commented, “Hmmm! Peace on earth?”

Here’s a serviceable recipe that can be used for a house or cookies. If you want to go hog wild as I used to, you will need to double or even triple the recipe. This will make one small house or about 20 cookies.

This image is taken from here – house builders after my own heart.  Pity I could not find a gingerbread house that needed an elevator.




¾ cup unsulphured molasses
¾ cup butter
4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 teaspoon double-acting baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten


Warm the molasses in a saucepan until it is just softened. Do not let it boil. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter until melted. Let cool.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, and brown sugar.

Add the butter/molasses mixture and egg and mix well. Refrigerate at least one hour or until the dough becomes stiff enough to roll.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Divide dough in half. Place each half between sheets of parchment paper. Place one half in the refrigerator to keep cool and roll out the other half to ⅛ to ¼ inch thick depending on use – thinner for cookies, thicker for house walls. Either use a template to make the components of a house, or a cookie cutter for cookies. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until an even golden brown, rotating the trays at least once to ensure even browning !!