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Who is Alexander Miles?

By Solomon Branch
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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.

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Discussion Comments
By SpecialBug — On Feb 03, 2014

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.

By Ahmerus — On Feb 03, 2014

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.

By Jewellian — On Feb 02, 2014
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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