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How Do Escalators Work?

Early commercial elevators were primarily installed in multi-story department stores like Bloomingdale's in New York City.
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  • Written By: Rebecca Partington
  • Edited By: Lucy Oppenheimer
  • Last Modified Date: 26 July 2014
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In 1859, Nathan Ames was granted a patent for his concept of the escalator, and Leamon Souder was later granted more patents for several of his own versions. Neither, however, ever built an actual working model. In the early 1890s, Jesse Reno was granted a patent for his version of the escalator, and produced a working model as an amusement park ride at Coney Island. A commercial model wasn't produced until 1899, when Charles Seeberger built one. Seeberger was actually the first of these inventors to use the term escalator.

The early commercial escalators were installed primarily in multi-story department stores such as Bloomingdale's in New York City. Both Seeberger and Reno sold their patent rights to the Otis Elevator Company in 1910, which proceeded to dominate the industry.

Escalators, while rather expensive and large, are actually relatively basic machines. Their machinery is hidden beneath its steps in what is called a truss. At the top of the machine, housed in the truss, is an electric motor which runs the four gears that all escalators have — two drive gears on either side at the top and two return gears on either side at the bottom. These gears have chains that loop around the gears and run down each side of the escalator. Connected to each step, these chains help the steps make their way up or down the escalator.

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The handrails that riders use for balance and safety on their ride up or down escalators are powered by the same system that powers the steps. The handrails are essentially long rubber loops connected to the two drive gears at the top and powered by the same electric motor that powers the steps.

The way the steps flatten out at the tops and bottoms of the escalators has to do with how each step is constructed. Each step has four wheels below the step — two each on either side. The two wheels that are closest to the top of the step are what connects the steps to the two chains that loop around the gears. The horizontal positioning of that chain at the top and bottom causes the steps, in turn, to to flatten out. The two wheels that are closest to the bottom of the step roll along a rail within the truss for stability. The grooves in the steps of escalators help with alignment.

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Discuss this Article

anon317381
Post 5

I am very paranoid around escalators. They can be very unpredictable. Even though I am paranoid, I prefer them to elevators because elevators are very stuffy, while in escalators you can see everything around you.

StarJo
Post 4

I thought that escalators were so magical as a child. I loved to watch the steps disappear at the top of the escalator and reappear out of the bottom.

At the time, I didn't have a clue about the mechanics behind the process. I probably believed they really did pop up out of the floor as if fed by some sort of metallic spring.

I remember begging my dad to let me ride the escalator over and over. Since he had to accompany me for safety reasons, I only got about three rides in a row. He said the whole thing made him dizzy.

cloudel
Post 3

@lighth0se33 – It doesn't sound that strange to me. I think you might be surprised at how many people dislike escalators.

Those metal grooves in the steps look very sharp. I wonder how often people do fall and cut themselves on them. They wouldn't have to fall from a great distance, as I'm sure just stumbling forward into a step could result in cuts.

While I don't love escalators, I do prefer them to elevators. If the cables holding the elevator break, then you can plummet to your death helplessly. I don't think that an escalator malfunction could really kill anyone.

Oceana
Post 2

One good thing about broken escalators is that they simply become stairs. You can still use them, unlike broken elevators.

Also, if you are on the middle of the escalator and it suddenly stops working, then you are not stuck there. Escalators are one of the few things that are nearly as convenient when they are broken as they are when they are working perfectly.

I was on an escalator once when the electricity to the whole building went out. A generator operated some emergency low lights, but the escalator lost power. It was no problem at all.

lighth0se33
Post 1

This may sound strange, but I have a fear of escalators. I have stumbled before when my timing was off as I stepped onto one, and it scared me so badly that I try to avoid them.

Getting on them at the bottom is not as scary as getting on them from the top. At the bottom, you only have an inch or so to fall, but if you stumble on the top of the escalator, then you could cut yourself up badly if you fall all the way down the thing.

I am glad that many malls that have escalators also have a set of stairs on either side for people like me who need them. I have actually missed a few good sales before because the stores were on the second floor of a building with only escalators.

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