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To Rise on the Magic Stairway

I’m old enough to have a vague memory of the clacking wooden escalators in Macy’s department store on Thirty-Fourth and Broadway in New York City. It must have been Christmas – time for our annual visit to Santa Claus. In my mind, the escalator sounds like a slow-moving freight train, a two-note percussion. I remember the stained, wooden slats rising up out of the floor, the smell of glitter and wet wool, my father’s hand pressed over mine.

They’ve kept a few of those wonderful, old wooden escalators in the store. Macy’s first embraced the escalator in the 1920s, early on in the escalator heyday, after substantial technical development of the notion.

The idea began with Nathan Ames’ 1859 patent for “Revolving Stairs,” with which (not being an engineer) he did absolutely nothing. Another great idea, patented by somebody who did nothing with it, was Leamon Souder’s 1889 “Stairway.” Souder’s invention featured an “endless chain” and two sets of wheels to stabilize each step, surprisingly modern features that make escalators work today.

The modern magic of the escalator (and it was, at one time, called a “magic stairway”) uses fairly simple technology. Under the front of the step is a set of wheels on a track. Those wheels are attached to the “endless chain” (like a bicycle chain) that pulls them upward. The back of the step is supported by another set wheels on a different track. The second track is spaced apart from the first so that the step will stay flat and level. When the steps need to flatten out (at the top and the bottom of the escalator), the two tracks level off horizontally.

The first actual moving stairway didn’t have steps; it was more like a rubberized conveyor-belt on an angle. Invented by 1892 by Jesse Reno, the “inclined elevator” caused a sensation at Coney Island. Wealthy people invested and other inventors immediately set out to create their own versions.

The hero of our story is Charles D. Seeberger, who bought an 1882 patent from George Wheeler and named the new invention an “escalator.” Seeberger, a savvy businessman, teamed up with Elisha Otis, of the still thriving Otis Elevator Company. They produced a version of today’s escalator and showed it at the 1900 Paris Exposition. The author of the blog, “TwiceModern,” quotes a book that describes the arrival of this new invention in Paris with wonderful hilarity:

The Triumph of Art Nouveau Paris Exhibition 1900 by Philippe Jullian, published by Phaidon Press, London and Larousse & Co., New York, 1974.

On pages 184-186 , a description follows: "The exhibition of 1900, with its vast crowds of such diverse social origins, produced many unexpected meetings of this kind, spiced with an exotic flavour. The escalator, with its pavements moving at three different speeds, caused many an incident worthy of the vaudeville, separating families, sending old men sprawling, delighting the children and reducing their nannies to despair (116). In fact, this new means of transport was the jolliest attraction at the exhibition; it went all round the Invalides to the Champ de Mars, enabling visitors to go quickly from the Esplanade to the Palais de l’Electricite. From the upper stage of the escalator tourists could see right into the apartments along the embankment, and this caused a certain amount of ill-feeling…By spending a whole day on the escalator, one can learn something of the habits of the residents. However, many tenants, just to be awkward, deliberately keep their windows closed while the escalator is in operation. I can see why they want to shut the bedroom window, even during the day; it is, perhaps, from an understandable feeling of modesty. But it seems to me that they could be compelled to leave the other windows of their apartments open as long as the exhibition lasts…The escalator was also a favorite haunt of pickpockets who, while pretending to help a lady to change from one stairway to another, would snatch her handbag. ”

I have a friend who gets anxiety on escalators, but I’ve always loved them. How magnificent to be carried upward with no effort at all. What fun it is to rise from floor to floor, in a slow progression, scanning the whole colorful display over your shoulder as a brand new world appears before you. How much better than the elevator, where all you can see is four sides of a box while suffering the precarious suspicion the whole thing might go crashing to the basement at any moment.

One of my favorites is pictured above: the brand new escalators at the 72 Street Q train station. Does the massive scale of their framework suggest new technological marvels? They rise and fall some 80 feet between the subway entrance and the paved surface of Manhattan. You almost feel you could take a parachute. They create their own weather tunnel – hot and moist, this time of year. And they give immense leisure to the people-watchers, who can observe the neighborhood’s peculiar mix of young and old in tandem – the trembling, big-veined hands and the careless thumbing of iPhones; the fluttering skirts and the black stretch pants; the Givenchy shoulder bags and the beige support hose. Yes, it's true that our subway steps have kept us in shape over the years, but it is the escalator gives rise to the imagination.


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