A group of people are pictured picketing in NYC.
1945 Press Photo New York Elevator Operators Strikeat Hoover Bldg at 8th Ave NYC. (Source: https://outlet.historicimages.com/products/neny22960)

How A Historic Strike Paved the Way for the Automated Elevator and What Those Lessons Could Mean for Self-Driving Cars

The Elevator Operator Experience

Male elevator operators are pictured outside of their respective elevators.

As a child, I can remember accompanying my mother on her weekend shopping excursions to department stores like A&S and Macy’s. While I looked forward to riding the escalators, which I always found exhilarating, taking the elevators offered a more personal, intimate experience. Although, I could not verbalize it at the time, I came to realize that riding in elevators was special because of the elevator operator.

Pictured is an Otis Elevator Hand Crank Control.

In their day, the elevator operator reigned supreme. The elevator car was their domain. As the passenger, you seeded control and they held court controlling the tone and feel of the experience — dictating the speed and comfort of the ride to your floor. I can still hear the phrases they used, “Step up”, “Step down”, “Closing doors”, “Careful stepping out” after all these years. I never quite understood how that “Dead Mans” hand crank worked, but I knew operating an elevator involved mastering the timing because if the operator moved the lever or crank too far, too fast, you could pass your floor, and he or she would have to jiggle it just right to get you to your destination.

The Beginning

Elevators have been around since the early 1800s, relying on steam power particularly in hotels. Around the early1900s, electric elevators became the. new. standard in new commercial buildings (The Equitable Life Building in Manhattan, was the first office building to feature elevators in 1870). Each elevator required it’s own operator. This held true in spite of automated or “operator less” elevators already having been invented. After World War II, Otis Elevator developed the “Autotronic Elevatoring System” which merely required one to select the floor, which also initiated the door closing. Can you imagine how foreign the concept of an automated elevator must of have seemed? Probably similar to many people feel about self-driving cars feel today. The core issue of mistrust in automated elevators was rooted in concerns about safety. Operators provided a sense of reliability, earning the trust of passengers by reassuring them that elevator cars were safe often through their demeanor. The elevator operator — many of whom were women was responsible for taking floor requests from passengers, controlling the speed and direction of the elevator car, announcing what was located on each floor while en route, and manually opening and closing the doors. Operator elevators became indispensable staples of modern society through what now could be considered mundane tasks. Yet the fact is one could not imagine life on an elevator without the operator for a large part of the 20th century. All of that changed after the 1945 Elevator Operator Strike.

A photo from Life Magazine depicts several female elevator operators outside of an elevator bank.

(Source: https://drloihjournal.blogspot.com/2019/05/the-elevator-girls-at-marshall-field-company-1947.html)

The 1945 Elevator Operator Strike

In 1945, within weeks of the end of World War II, some 15,000 elevator operators, doorman, porters and maintenance workers went on strike in New York City commercial buildings. Mail delivery halted, and the federal government lost approximately $8 million dollars per day tax revenue. For an entire week, the elevators remained unused. The public refused to go near the controls despite having watched the operators work the levers numerous times. The thought that a layperson could operate an elevator was simply an outrageous thought. After all elevator operators received training. Some of the female operators were required to attend charm school.

The elevator operator was so critical to everyday life that their strike effectively brought the City to a screeching halt. The strike cost an estimated $100 million in economic loss to the City, and spurred over one million workers to stay home or protest in the streets to show support. As the strike continued into the work week, Governor Thomas Dewey was forced to intervene appointing an arbitrator that ultimately settled the strike.

Pictured are a group of women holding 32B strike signs who appear to be picketing outside a Manhattan building.
A massive crowd, which includes a person holding a 32B strike sign is pictured.

(Source: https://picclick.com/VINTAGE-1945-New-York-City-Crowds-During-Elevator-352598942581.html)

Innovation and Rise in Popularity of Automated Elevators

In the next few years, the advent of the emergency phone (do elevators still have these?) and an emergency stop button helped put the automated elevator on the path of public acceptance. Remote operators, emergency stop buttons, and alarms brought about increased safety measures for automated elevators. Users may not have trusted the elevator initially, but knowing that help could be dispatched through a phone call or alarm, and that they could stop the elevator through the push of a button at anytime made them feel safe. An important point to recognize is that while these features were rolled out and others were added — double safety doors, security cameras, and other controls it took many years for automated elevators to become widespread.

Later, when the elevator operators union went on strike again, there was not nearly the same impact as the first time. In 1950, Otis Elevator installed a completely automated elevator in the Atlantic Refining Building in Dallas, Texas, which marked the beginning of the end for the elevator operator. Public acceptance of the automated elevator was beginning to spread and people continued using the elevator without operators. By the 1970s most elevators operated without human operators.

Today, automated elevators are among the safest forms of transport and are safer than escalators and even stairs (due to falls), but they can still cause fatal accidents. Elevators are responsible for 27 deaths a year and injure about 10,000 people — the majority of which occur during maintenance. (see here)

Parallels Between the 1945 Elevator Operator Strike and COVID-19 Shelter-in-Place Mandates and their impact on the acceptance of technology

There are several parallels between the acceptance of automated elevators and the acceptance of “automated” or self-driving cars. In both instances automation was available during the periods in which human operation was popular. Additionally, there were safety concerns from a skeptical public who hadn’t quite accepted the technology yet. Most interestingly, there is how the role of an economic shutdown can serve as a turning point. In the case of the elevator operator strike a labor dispute, which shutdown economic activity in New York City became a pivotal moment for the introduction of innovative automated technology to the masses that would change the way we live. As I look at the many shuttered businesses in New York City due to COVID-19, I can’t help but consider whether current shelter-in-place protocols which have halted much of our way of life will bring about increased public acceptance for self driving technology as the elevator operator strike did for the automated elevator.

Self-driving technology companies are providing critical meal and goods delivery services while adhering to social distancing mandates. (see here and here and here) They are demonstrating their usefulness — even exhibiting new applications during this time of need through contactless delivery. Could this be the triggering event prompting increased acceptance of self-driving car technology? Hmm…

Closing Thoughts

There is no question I miss the elevator operator experience. Admittedly, I liked the level of service. After all, who doesn’t like to be catered to? And those “Dead Man” hand crank controls were pretty cool! The uniforms, the professionalism, and the energy many brought to to the elevator car is something my children will never experience. In fact, many of the elevators I ride in Manhattan do not have buttons on the inside — instead relying on an advanced cue system located outside the doors. Personal appreciation aside, I think much I rather prefer the efficiencies offered by today’s technology leaving the elevator operator behind as part of my cherished childhood memories.

Stay Safe.

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