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Who is Alexander Miles?

Alexander Miles was an innovative African American inventor who revolutionized elevator safety in the late 19th century. His automatic door mechanism greatly reduced accidents, transforming urban architecture and transport. His story is a testament to ingenuity and perseverance in an era of limited opportunities for Black inventors. How did his invention change the world we live in today? Explore his lasting impact with us.
Solomon Branch
Solomon Branch

Alexander Miles is an African-American inventor who is largely known for his contribution to the elevator industry. He was awarded a US patent in 1887 for his design, although he was not the person who originally invented the concept of the elevator or elevator doors. His design allowed the doors of the elevator to open and close automatically when it stopped on a floor. Prior to his design, the doors had to be open manually.

Born in Ohio in 1838, Alexander Miles moved to Duluth, Minnesota in the 1870s where he found work as a barber. He was married to a Caucasian woman, Carolyn J. Chapman of New York, and they had a daughter named Grace. During his time in Duluth, he worked in real estate and owned several buildings, both commercial and residential. He is noted as being the only African-American on the Duluth Chamber of Commerce.

Alexander Miles made it possible for doors on an elevator to open and close automatically.
Alexander Miles made it possible for doors on an elevator to open and close automatically.

His invention was an improvement on the previous models of elevators, primarily due to safety concerns. Older models of the elevator would not close when the elevator was traveling, and this could be a problem if someone forgot to close the door. There were accidents where people would fall out of the elevator and into the shaft.

Alexander Miles's improvement to the elevator was basically a matter of structure. His device worked by attaching a flexible belt to the elevator cage. When the belt bumped against drums that were placed directly above and under the floors, it trigged the elevator shaft doors to open and close. The doors were further manipulated through a series of levers and pulleys.

The main confusion about Alexander Miles is that he invented the elevator door mechanism, and sometimes, even the elevator itself, but this is not correct. The first patent for elevator doors was given to John W. Meaker. Mr. Meaker was awarded the patent for the creation of the elevator door system in 1874, 13 years prior to Mr. Miles' patent. Werner Von Siemens of Germany is credited with inventing the first electric elevator in 1880.

Despite the confusion, Alexander Miles made a huge contribution to the elevator. Modern day elevators are still designed using his basic principles, and his patent is still considered for most elevators today because they all use the same principle of automated opening and closing doors. His life and his invention helped to break down racial barriers in many regards.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Alexander Miles and what is he known for?

Alexander Miles was an African American inventor and businessman best known for his patent in 1887 of an automatically opening and closing elevator door design. His invention greatly improved elevator safety by eliminating the need for passengers to manually open and close the shaft and car doors, which was a significant hazard at the time. Miles' innovation is considered a crucial development in the modern elevator systems we use today.

When did Alexander Miles live and what was the context of his invention?

Alexander Miles lived during the late 19th century, with his most notable patent filed on October 11, 1887. During this era, elevators were becoming more common in multi-story buildings, but they were dangerous due to the manual operation of doors. Miles' invention came at a time when there was a pressing need for safer and more efficient elevator designs, contributing to the advancement of urban architecture and skyscraper construction.

How did Alexander Miles' invention impact society and industry?

Alexander Miles' invention had a profound impact on both society and the elevator industry by enhancing the safety and functionality of elevators. This allowed for taller buildings and the growth of cities vertically, revolutionizing urban development. His automatic door mechanism became a standard feature in elevator design, reducing accidents and paving the way for the modern, automated elevators we rely on in residential and commercial buildings worldwide.

What challenges did Alexander Miles face as an African American inventor?

As an African American inventor in the post-Civil War era, Alexander Miles faced significant racial barriers. Despite the abolition of slavery, African Americans were still subjected to systemic discrimination and had limited access to education, resources, and legal protection for their inventions. Miles' success was exceptional during a time when Black inventors had to navigate a society that often did not acknowledge or fairly compensate them for their contributions.

Are there any other notable contributions from Alexander Miles apart from his elevator invention?

Beyond his famous elevator patent, Alexander Miles was also a successful businessman. He owned a barbershop in Duluth, Minnesota, which became the headquarters for the local African American community. Additionally, he was involved in real estate and helped to establish the United Brotherhood, an insurance company aimed at serving the Black community. His entrepreneurial spirit and community involvement were significant at a time when opportunities for African Americans were severely limited.

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Discussion Comments


The next time you take an elevator, look along the wall. Usually on the panel above the buttons that operate the elevator, you will see the name "Otis". This is in reference to the inventor of the elevator brake. Miles name is not inside the elevator, but Otis gained notoriety for his invention during the World's Fair, held in New York in 1854. Otis boarded the elevator, and called for the rope attached to the "box" to be severed from the hoisting platform. Remember, he was in the elevator. He demonstrated to the crowd that his braking system worked, and the rest was elevator history. Early Otis elevators were soon installed in the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State building. The first was installed in a building on Broadway.

Both Otis' and Miles' inventions helped to alleviate the fear people had of riding elevators. Otis braking system actually catapulted the building industry into constructing taller buildings/skyscrapers. Miles' invention added the safety measure that kept them safely inside the elevator on its ascent.


Actually, buildings were gaining height in the mid to late 1800's prior to Alexander Miles elevator door invention. Elisha Otis, in the year 1853, invented the elevator brake, some 34 years before Miles received a patent for the elevator doors. Otis invented the brakes and Miles invented the doors. The two certainly go together that's for sure.

Very interesting. Elevator doors that open and close automatically is something, I would say, that most of us take for granted. I cannot imagine taking an elevator up to the top floor of a very tall building with the doors open. I wonder how many people who did, fell to their deaths? Of course, in the mid 1800's the buildings were not that tall, but still.

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    • Alexander Miles made it possible for doors on an elevator to open and close automatically.
      By: Carsten Reisinger
      Alexander Miles made it possible for doors on an elevator to open and close automatically.