Meet the first black man who built and improved an automatic Elevator

Alexander Miles/WikipediaAlexander Miles/Wikipedia

In the modern history of America, the achievement of black people is sometimes clouded by the history of slavery.

Their contribution is not put in the spotlight for people to learn. However, they are credited for inventing some of the greatest inventions in the modern era.

From George Washington Carver who invented over 300 products made from peanuts: flour, paste, insulation, paper, wallboard, wood stains, soap, shaving cream, and skin lotion, to Sarah Breedlove, aka Madam C.J Walker, the inventor of beauty products and the first women in U.S history to become a self-made millionaire. Many of these you probably don’t or never heard about them.

This brings us to Alexander Miles, the man behind the idea of an automatic elevator.

Alexander Miles

According to Wikipedia, born near Circleville, Ohio to Michael Miles and Mary Pompy, Alexander Miles is the 19th Century African-American inventor known best for patenting his design for improving the automatically opening and closing elevator doors. The patent was issued on October 11, 1887 (U.S. Patent 371,207).

Alexander Miles was born in Pickaway County near the town of Circleville, Ohio, in 1838the son of Michael and Mary Miles. He was African-American. Miles may have resided in the nearby town of Chillicothe, Ohio, but subsequently moved to Waukesha, Wisconsin, where he earned a living as a barber.

After a move to Winona, Minnesota, he met and married Mrs. Candace J. (Shedd) Dunlap, of La Porte, Indiana, a widow with two children, who was four years his senior and a native of New York. Together they had a daughter, born in 1876, named Grace.

It is believed by some that Alexander got the idea for his elevator door mechanism after Grace accidentally fell down a shaft, almost ending her life.  Shortly after her birth, the family relocated to Duluth, Minnesota. Here, Alexander became the first Black member of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce.

The family moved to Montgomery, Alabama by 1889, where Miles was listed in the city directories as a laborer. In 1899, he moved to Chicago where he founded The United Brotherhood as a life insurance company that would insure black people, who were often denied coverage at that time. Around 1903, they moved again, to Seattle, Washington, where he worked in a hotel as a barber.

Miles died in 1918 and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007.

Elevator innovation

Miles's first Elevator Design Diagram1

Miles’ first Elevator Design Diagram

In his time, doors of the elevators had to be closed manually, often by dedicated operators. If the shaft was not closed, people could fall through it leading to some horrific accidents. Miles improved on this mechanism by designing a flexible belt attachment to the elevator cage, and drums positioned to indicate if the elevator has reached a floor. The belt allowed for automatic opening and closing when the elevator reached the drums on the respective floors, by means of levers and rollers.

Miles' first Elevator Design Diagram

Miles’ first Elevator Design Diagram











Miles was granted a patent for this mechanism in 1887, thus greatly improving the safety and efficiency of elevators. John W. Meaker was granted a patent 13 years earlier for another related mechanism of automatic closing of elevator doors. He is a “part of a very select group” of African-American inventors and scientists.

Miles' first Elevator Design Diagram

Miles’ first Elevator Design Diagram

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