At the National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF), we not only recognize the novel ideas that have shaped the world, but we also celebrate the innovations that have improved upon these ideas over time. Through innovation, many of our visionary Inductees have helped to build industries, grow technologies, improve lives and make social progress.
For an example of how innovations have made an impact in our daily lives, just take a moment to think about the last time you used an elevator. Can you imagine having to open and close the elevator doors yourself? Having doors that operate automatically is a convenience and an important safety feature we all tend to take for granted, but it’s the result of a revolutionary innovation made by NIHF Inductee Alexander Miles.
An Ingenious Mind
Born May 18, 1838, Alexander Miles spent much of his adult life as a barber. While working in Wisconsin, he began to explore his passion for inventing by developing hair care products. Finding great success operating a barbershop in the St. Louis Hotel in Duluth, Minnesota, Miles applied what he’d earned to buy a real estate office and became the first Black member of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce.
There is more than one story of how Miles came to develop an innovation for elevators. Some say that he could likely hear the operation of the elevator near his barbershop within the four-story Duluth Hotel and may have found inspiration that way. Others say Miles took note of the hazards of elevator operation when he saw a shaft door left open while riding in an elevator with his daughter Grace. In either case, Miles applied his ingenuity to patent his design for an improved method for opening and closing elevators in 1887.
An Essential Advance in Safety
Early elevator designs required either an operator or the passengers to manually open and close the doors of both the elevator shaft and cabin. Because doors were sometimes left open, passengers could fall into elevator shafts, resulting in serious injuries and even death.
Miles addressed this danger by attaching a flexible belt to the elevator cage. When the belt came into contact with drums positioned along the elevator shaft just above and below the floors, it allowed the elevator shaft doors to operate at the appropriate times. The elevator doors themselves were automated through a series of levers and rollers.
With this patented innovation, Miles not only made elevator rides safer, but he also made them easier with the automatic opening and closing of doors at the desired floors.
A Lasting Impact
In 1899, Miles and his family moved to Chicago, where he founded a life insurance company. This company, The United Brotherhood, made an important social impact by selling life insurance to Black Americans, who were often refused coverage from white-owned insurance firms.
The family then moved once more to Seattle, where Miles continued working as a barber and was once known as “the wealthiest African American in the Pacific Northwest region.”
Today, the influence of Alexander Miles’ elevator patent is still seen in modern designs because the automatic opening and closing of elevator cabin and shaft doors is now a standard feature. You will have this trailblazing innovator to thank the next time you step into an elevator.
To discover more of our inspiring Hall of Famers, we invite you to visit our NIHF Inductee database.