Escalators, inclined elevators and myths


When was the first escalator? When was the first escalator in London? When was the first escalator on the London Underground? Attempting to answer these simple questions reveal an astonishing amount of confusion about what was first, widely conflicting dates for particular events and, most worrying of all, what an escalator actually is. My own attempts to unravel this has uncovered a huge amount of dubious and recycled information bearing only an occasional connection with the facts, so I have tried here to draw together what I can in order to set out the story of an important engineering development.

I do need to start off by saying that the word escalator today means a passenger conveyor intended to carry people up or down a level and that forms steps; it can conveniently be described as a moving staircase or stairway. Alternatively, we have a related form of passenger conveyor that travels along a level or inclined path in the form of a belt; this is often termed a moving walkway and, crucially, it does not form steps. Practical moving walkways predate escalators and the ones that changed level were often termed inclined elevators.

A degree of confusion is understandable given how freely the terms have been misused, from the very start. Early inclined elevators were frequently misdescribed as moving stairs, causing endless misunderstanding to those looking into the history. The potential for confusion is amplified by the word ‘Escalator’ (capital E) for half a century being one manufacturer’s trademark, which term was (unhelpfully) sometimes used for its stepless machines as well. I hope you are beginning to get the picture! In this writing I use the word escalator (without qualification) only for a machine that forms steps and is the product of its trademark owner, or as an obviously recent generic machine; if it doesn’t form steps I give it a descriptive name.


Had escalators been available even a decade earlier than they were, then London’s Underground would have developed rather differently, and station designs very differently. The ideal would surely be the arrangement at Kilburn Park (1915) with a spacious street-level ticket hall that was linked directly to platforms via a single pair of escalators – no steps and no tortuous passages.

Although the first moving stairway patent predates the moving walkway, the practical escalator, or moving stairway, is a slightly later development sharing many of its features.  The first patent for a moving walkway was obtained in 1871; the inventor was Alfred Speer, from New Jersey, but it does not seem that this resulted in any rush to exploit this discovery. As originally conceived it was a moving level platform and perhaps felt not very useful.

Early ‘Walkways’

The first use of a moving walkway was in America in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair, and was operated by the Movable Sidewalk Company. The device was something of a novelty, the privilege of using it costing 5 cents a ride. It comprised a moving track, running at a speed of about 180 feet per minute, which ran parallel with a second track running at twice the speed, the second (or fast) track included seating. People got on and off (or changed tracks) by means of a sideways step, and vertical grab poles were provided to steady people or to cling on to. A contemporary description states it ran the entire 3500 ft length of the Great Pier to which steamboats plied, bringing the visitors the eight miles from the city centre. The tracks actually comprised an enormous number of connected moving platforms rolling along railway-like tracks; to that extent it was the forerunner of today’s machines. There was enough clearance between the platforms to allow the conveyors to reverse direction by means of enormous loops at either end.  Unfortunately it was destroyed in a serious fire in January 1894 when a number of buildings were also burnt down.

Representation of the two ‘tracks’ at Chicago Worlds Fair 1893,
with seating on the fast track.

Something similar, but a great deal larger, was installed at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900 and was 2.1 miles long, serving most parts of the site. This so impressed inventor Thomas Edison that he made a movie of it, itself not something for the faint hearted (Click HERE to see it).

Two-speed moving walkway in Paris, 1900, showing static walkway alongside and vertical grab stanchions.



Early Inclined Elevators

The inclined elevator is a particular type of moving walkway with, as the name suggests, the useful property that it effects a change in level.

One of the great proponents of moving walkways was Jesse Wilford Reno (1861-1947). In 1891 he applied for the first US patent for what we would recognize as a relatively modern moving walkway (granted 1892). However it took several years before a practical machine was presented to the public.

Reno’s first moving walkway to enter service was at Coney Island in September 1896. This was inclined at 25 degrees to the horizontal and had a rise of just 7 feet. (25 degrees equates to a gradient of about 1:2.2, or 47%, for those who prefer things in that form.) Although described in some sources as a ‘pleasure ride’ it was actually located to do useful work and was designed to lift passengers onto the Old Iron Pier, which was at a slightly higher level than the connecting land. The photograph shows it to have been located at the right hand end of the main stairs, which perhaps explains the angle of inclination, which set the pattern for his later machines. There is a moving handrail on one side only of the narrow walkway, which was equipped with moving slats topped out with wooden cleats that meshed with metal combs at the landings, an arrangement familiar to us all today. Contemporary reports indicate the machine was capable of moving at 75 feet per minute and had a capacity of 3000 persons an hour. (This equates to 50 people a minute, which at the quoted speed means they would have had no more than 18 inches of space each. On a continuous basis this capacity sounds high.) The machine was regarded as a demonstrator, showing off its capabilities to potential customers, such as the trustees of the Brooklyn Bridge, and subway and elevated railway operators. The machine, labelled as a Reno Continuous Elevator, is reputed to have carried 75,000 people during short two-week period of operation at Coney Island and was judged as success.

Reno’s first machine at Coney Island in the fall of 1896

During late April of 1896 Reno was granted permission by the trustees of the Brooklyn Bridge to install an experimental ‘moving staircase’ at the bridge’s new New York terminal, subject to some irksome conditions. I have yet to unearth all details of this but it seems that this took some time to arrange and involved the reuse of the Coney Island machine. Press reports suggest that it must have gone into service towards the very end of 1896, perhaps as late as December. At its new location it ran in service for at least a month (one source quotes two).

Diagram of the Coney Island machine showing drive wheel, walkway and landing arrangements

The drawing underneath shows the Brooklyn Bridge installation, and has been cut away to show driving mechanism. The motor seems to have been at the bottom, presumably driving the lower gear wheel and the returning trackway can be seen meeting the upper gear wheel. It certainly seems to be very similar to the Coney Island image and is almost certainly the same machine. The flat cleated slats and comb plate are more visible.

Reno’s installation at Brooklyn Bridge 1896

Strange to say that it was only after this machine had been in operation that the idea of constructing a horizontal machine was suggested, initially as a means of crossing the bridge, but this was not pursued. Though Coney island is frequently cited as ‘the first escalator’, the evidence clearly indicates that it was a conveyor of the walkway type and, most significantly, did not form steps. It was very different in conception to the familiar stepped machines and not an escalator as we would know it. Part of the reason for the confusion is clearly because press reports use the terms moving stairway.

It is worth mentioning a further apparent source of confusion about these early inclined elevators for a little later Reno devised and patented an entirely different kind of inclined elevator. This alternative form had the peculiar property that passengers were required to sit on it, as though it were some kind of inverted ski lift. It was therefore a passenger conveyor, but not a walkway. I am yet to discover more about this, especially whether or not it was either intended for, or used as, a public conveyor or merely some kind of novelty. There is an image, produced below, of a sitting-down type conveyor at Coney Island, probably made by Reno, and this was installed in 1902 to service what we would call a helter skelter. It is apparent that this design departed very considerably from his 1892 patent and does not seem to have been repeated (though see my comments later about Southend).

Inclined Elevators Become Popular

Returning to the story of ‘walk on’ type machines, Reno saw his invention more as a means of changing levels rather than simply moving people horizontally, so most (if not all) of his machines were inclined ones. Reno’s early moving walkway comprised a series of slats about 4 inches wide and 2 feet long that moved on support rails beneath. The slats butted up against each other along their long edges to produce a continuous conveyor 2 ft wide contained between vertical side walls. The slats were mounted on two wheels made of Hemacite, one wheel at each extremity, and all the slats were connected to a drive chain which kept them in their correct position with respect to each other as well as imparting movement. Reno’s patent was important because it involved the walkway treads being surfaced with a set of rubber-covered cleats, set parallel to the direction of travel. At the step-off and step-on landings a metal comb-plate was provided with the teeth set intermediately between the cleats and sloping down gradually over the surface of the walkway until they were just below the level of the top of the cleats. This enabled users to stride straight on and off the machine at the ends and even if no attempt was made to get off the user would simply be swept safely onto the landing. The motor was installed at the upper end and drove the conveyor via a large sprocket wheel that meshed with the chain. Typical speeds were in the range of 90-120 ft/minute. On what we would now call the balustrading, Reno provided a moving handrail on one side (and often on both sides); these would be familiar to us now and comprised continuous belts of flexible material that were geared to the movement of the machine.

Reno’s inclined elevators, or conveyors, quickly became popular and by the turn of the century they were to be found in a number of the larger American department stores, amongst other places. For example, Reno was installing an inclined elevator at Bloomingdales in New York in May 1898 and was hoping to have it in service in June. The New York Times reported this would be the first ‘demonstration’ since one was demonstrated on the Manhattan side of Brooklyn Bridge for about four weeks, where, on one occasion, it had carried 3200 people in one hour; it was apparently just about to be put back into service again.

In 1900 five Reno machines were commissioned for the Paris Exposition, already referred to, and in the same year another was installed in London’s Crystal Palace, passengers passing through a turnstile and paying a penny for the thrill of being conveyed from the ground floor to the gallery. Charles Lee in a newspaper column about early escalators observed it was referred to at the time as the ‘sliding staircase’, even though it lacked stair risers. The Crystal Palace machine, which came into service on 4 August, was inclined at 25 degrees and was about 54 ft long, with a vertical rise of nearly 22 ft. It was located in the central transept and was powered by a 7.5 kW motor of American origin and driven at about 90 ft/min. The Electrician explains that although the entire machine was of American design it was constructed and installed by the British Company, George Aston & Son (as part of a syndicate that included Reno). Later information suggests that it was down to Reno’s initiative to select Crystal Palace as a suitable location for a demonstration device, so it was almost certainly Reno’s first British installation.

The 1900 Crystal Palace installation, The Electrician

Reno did very well out of his invention when the Manhattan Elevated Railroad Company placed an order for 100 machines, and eventually all its stations were equipped. Reno machines were also employed at some New York Subway stations and one turn-of-the-century machine at 59th Street remained in service until 1955.

Reno’s inclined machines were not the only ones in Paris, and this indicates the amount of interest there was in mechanical passenger conveyors at that time. There was a similar machine to that by Reno built by James M Dodge, for example, and others by Halle, Piat and the Link Belt Machinery Company.

This is the Reno inclined elevator (moving walkway) at the Paris Exposition 1900 and judging by the background we can conclude that it was installed in advance of most of the exhibits and we are seeing it here under test.
I have reason to believe this is the Paris Exposition in 1900, showing an inclined stepless machine with cleated treads. The lower landing design is the same as the Reno machine shown in the image immediately above it; there were four other machines, but it could be the same one.The official at the bottom looks as though he is there to extract money, apparently 10 centimes.

The Crystal Palace machine was not in fact the first moving walkway in Great Britain, and it seems this honour must fall to the Harrod’s emporium at Knightsbridge (although the present building dates only to 1905 it incorporates parts of the earlier store). This machine connected the ground and first floors and operated only upwards. It was designed by the French company, Piat, being its first commercial installation. The machine was about 40 ft long and is reported to have comprised a continuous leather belt, made up of 224 pieces. It is said that the company relinquished its patent rights to Harrod’s, for some unspecified reason, though this doesn’t seem to be a very useful thing to do unless Harrod’s had contemplated making and selling them itself. It went into service on 16 November 1898 and lasted until 1910 when it was found to be in the way of a further building extension and had to come out. With its usual enterprise Harrods decided to sell it as an operational machine. Describing it as a moving staircase, Harrods said: ‘Should draw great crowds and prove most remunerative investment’; prospective buyers were invited to come along and see it working. I do not know what fate then befell it but it raises a question why it could not be accommodated in the extension if it was as good for business as Harrods suggested.

These two images of the Harrods inclined elevator by Piat show (after very close examination) that it was an inclined walkway. It is a great pity we cannot see the lower landing arrangement because of the people. It looks as though there was a steep fixed ramp in advance of the moving portion, providing vertical clearance for the lower drive above the existing floor. Though not obvious in left hand photo the underside of the machine is entirely boxed in and surfaced with what appears to be a mirrored surface. The return track and drive mechanism would have been located here.

In 1901 the Liverpool Overhead Railway showed great enterprise when it installed a moving walkway at its Seaforth Sands station. This was a Reno machine, described as an ‘endless belt’ but in fact was of the ‘pallet’ type where the walkway consisted of a large number of discrete ‘trucks’ or ‘pallets’ coupled to an endless chain and carried on wheels. Each pallet was topped off with a wooden tread, 2 ft wide. The wheels underneath each pallet were carried on a pair of rails mounted on a steel truss. On the upper surface of the treads were fixed a number of wooden cleats topped with rubber. It travelled at a speed of 100 ft/min with a carrying capacity of 3500 passengers an hour and was operated by a 10HP (7.5kW) motor. The moving handrail (just one) is described as comprising ‘an endless steel chain’ sliding in a groove in a steel bar running the length of the machine. The chain provided a convenient means of imparting movement via a driven sprocket wheel and it was covered by a flexible rubber strip to make it comfortable to hold. To make it obvious that it was moving, white spots were moulded into the rubber to draw attention to the movement.

Reno 1900 machine serving Manhattan elevated at 59th Street / 3rd Avenue. Passengers going up by mechanical means (on the right), and down via the stairs (on the left), used what today would be regarded as extraordinarily narrow facilities. There does not appear to be any balustrading separating stairway from moving walkway.

It is by no means unlikely that it was similar to those being installed by Reno on the Manhattan Elevated network at about the same time and it is certainly the first passenger conveyor associated with Britain’s railways. A new station was opened at Seaforth Sands on 2 July 1905, and although the old station remained in service for two decades more, the moving walkway went out of use shortly after the new station opened (historian Charles Lee thought it was ‘about the end of 1906’). This short life indicates that it was not entirely satisfactory and by repute it seems that the voluminous ladies’ skirts in fashion at that time often got caught up with the equipment, giving rise to claims.

A contemporary sketch of Seaforth Sands showing the stairway entrance to the overhead station with the Reno inclined elevator installed to right of the stairs. It went into service at end of January (or early February) 1901.(From ‘Transport’, 15 March 1901, and I thank A Badsey Ellis for drawing it to my attention)

The Seaforth machine was installed by the Reno Inclined Elevator Company of 70 Finsbury Pavement, London EC; this appears to have been a branch office of the US company rather than a British Subsidiary. The Construction engineers were G. Aston & Son, 46 Eagle Wharf Road, London N, the same firm involved at Crystal Palace. At about the same time Reno’s company had just been given a useful order by the Dover Harbour Board for a large baggage and package conveyor for the Admiralty Pier.

Reno Inclined Elevator Construction Syndicate

At about this time (reputed to be in 1900) that Reno moved to London, perhaps disillusioned that some of his far reaching ideas for transit facilities in New York had gone nowhere (though he married his fiancee, from Philadelphia, on 15 January 1901, which might be relevant).

I have already drawn attention to Reno’s connection with George Aston & Son, who appear to have constructed and erected British machines on Reno’s behalf. The London Gazette reveals that this firm was a partnership of William Henry Aston (son of George, who died in 1893), Charles Tyler Aston and Charles Williamson Milne. Milne left the partnership from 20 November 1902.

Before Milne’s departure the two Astons, together with Reno, were separately trading as the Reno Inclined Elevator Construction Syndicate, probably from Reno’s arrival in England in 1900. As far as I can see this acted as an all-purpose firm to sell and install Reno machines in the UK, the construction element going to George Aston & Son. The Crystal Palace contracts were certainly entered into with the Syndicate acting as principle. Presumably this was also a partnership.

It is noteworthy that W.H. Aston was also interested in inclined elevator design and filed his first inclined elevator patent in 1901. Whether he was in the least bit interested in the subject prior to meeting Reno, I really could not say. He did subsequently file numerous patents for a range of inventions. William Aston became managing director of the 1902 company.

Reno Electric Stairways and Conveyors Ltd

During 1902 a further change took place to the trading arrangements between the individuals already described. Early in the year an attempt was made to establish a joint stock company called the Reno Electric Stairways and Conveyors Co Ltd. This was dissolved almost immediately and a second company with the same name came into being on 8 April, based at 70 Finsbury Pavement. Presumably there had been some procedural difficulty. W. H.  Aston was appointed for three years as managing director. Other directors were J.A.H. Drought (chairman – he seems to have been a professional chairman), Walter Leigh-Hunt, Richard Wainwright and John George Wainwright, the latter giving the 70 Finsbury Pavement address as their own, so it may have been an address of convenience only. It is perhaps of interest that Reno himself was not a director, even though he gave his name to the company. It is worth noting here that his American firm continued to function in the USA as before, and this must have taken up at least some of his time. Reno had already considered the usefulness of a spiral escalator and found a natural ally in Aston who had been thinking on similar lines. Perhaps he was happy to leave the development and sale of such machines entirely to Aston, together with the less specialized skills required to sell existing designs of elevator as occasion allowed.

The stated purpose of the new Reno company was to ‘acquire the British patents of the Reno inclined elevator and those applied for by W H Aston for spiral and moving ways and to take over the existing contracts and concessions and machines owned by vendors’. Reno had been quite successful in developing working inclined elevators and had obvious engineering talent; in 1903 Otis bought a third share in the company, entitling it to place two members on its board of directors. The company took over the existing activities of the Reno Inclined Elevator Construction Syndicate, already described, and it is that firm that is named in the Crystal Palace records as the supplier of its first machine in 1901 (it bought another, from the company, in 1904).

The Reno Electric Stairways and Conveyors Ltd does not seem to have been a conspicuously successful company and stopped filing accounts in 1904, which is rarely a sign of a well run organization. I have identified that the company was removed from the official register by Companies House in 1905. In 1907 it ceased paying interest on its debentures and in 1909 this caused Otis to lose patience and a manager was appointed to sort things out. In fact the company was in such a hopeless state that it was decided to wind it up, achieved in 1912. Reno is recorded as having sold his patents to Otis in 1911, but in the US it had already taken over the Reno Inclined Elevator Company and therefore had access to many of the patents; presumably the patents sold by the failed British company were the British patents that would have been important to the British arm of Otis (which operated in conjunction with Richard Waygood and Co).

I should add that when Reno sold out to Otis he was on quite good terms. He remained with Otis as a consultant for many years and continued to patent inventions where Otis was the applicant.

Early British Reno Inclined Elevators

The prospectus lists some of the locations at which inclined elevators had already been installed in the UK. Locations included the Liverpool Overhead Railway (it didn’t say it was only one machine), The Alhambra at Blackpool, The Earls Court Exhibition, Crystal Palace (already mentioned) and one at Southend on Sea. It was noted that the machine at Crystal Palace had carried on at least one occasion 10,000 persons in one day at a charge of 1 penny each, and the machine at the Earls Court exhibition had carried 13,000 at similar charge the previous Whitsuntide in just nine hours.

Independent information indicates the the Earls Court machine was first put into service on 6 May 1901 upon the holding of the Military exhibition, and carried people from the central hall (an area also referred to as Imperial Court) to the long bridge. A site map shows this to have been the bridge across the West London Extension railway (and the Metropolitan District Railway’s Lillie Bridge works), linking the triangular site by Warwick Road with the large rectangle on the west side.


This illustration of the Earls Court Exhibition inclined walkway shows that during the 1903 season a charge of a penny was made for its use. It is apparently called “Electric Stairway”, though not actually forming steps.

The Alhambra at Blackpool was a financial disaster and the complex only operated between 1899 and 1903 when its owners were bankrupted. The ‘moving staircase’ (as the Manchester Guardian unhelpfully termed it) was introduced in summer 1901 and after closure was accommodated in Frank Matcham’s much-adapted building that opened the following year as the Palace Theatre and Ballroom.

The Southend inclined elevator (actually referred to at the time as an inclined stairway) operated from 3 September 1901 to early 1912 and was on the site of the later cliff railway installed by Waygood & Co (in service from August 1912) with a single counterweighted car and using the original elevator guide beam. In operation the Reno machine was reputed to be noisy and unreliable (and open to the elements) and felt not really suitable for what was being asked of it. I gather the redundant elevator was recovered and went to a holiday camp at Douglas, Isle of Man, where it is still located, though unused since 1967. Someone will surely know about this (in the meantime see the note at the end of the section about the inclined elevator)?

The Southend inclined elevator (described on flag as ‘electric stair’). The sub structure was later used by the cliff lift, said to run at a gradient of 43.4%, which corresponds closely to the standard Reno machine inclination of 25 degrees.

Reno installed his Reno Electric Stairway at Clacton in 1902, the device carried passengers up the 40 ft high cliff for a penny a ride, but most people preferred to make the gentle ascent on foot and the Reno Company removed their machinery in 1908. Other machines were intended for Tynemouth and Ramsgate, but I am not certain these went in.

An American Reno advertisement of 1907 promoting the money-making possibilities afforded by the Reno moving stair system. (The White City referred to is not the one in London.)


Reno – Aston Inclined Spiral Elevators

I make a comment later (in the section about Escalators) about the muddle there is when the word ‘escalator’ is used to describe a machine that does not form steps. Many machines have been wrongly so described, including the Harrods one. A machine that has suffered this indignity more than most is the so-called ‘Reno spiral escalator’ design, which is without doubt a form of inclined elevator (not forming steps, it is not an escalator) and where for that matter Jesse Reno’s personal involvement has not left very much trace either. The idea and the design seem substantially to emanate from William Aston and it was Aston who successfully patented the idea in a workable form (though Reno just preceded him with something slightly different, and both somewhat lagged behind Seeberger, whose patent really was for an escalator, but that is not relevant to this particular tale).

This is the Aston spiral elevator patent as filed in the UK (there was no US equivalent). The left hand section shows the arrangement of spirals, and if the trackway is about 2 ft wide then it suggests the whole arrangement would comfortably fit into a 23ft vertical shaft. The view on right shows the plan, and indicates how the spirals changed diameter at top and bottom. Chain and treads also indicated at the bottom.
This shows (top) end section showing walkway with cleated top, balustrading and handrails. Lower plan shows  walkway treads designed to move in a circular motion.

In any event, Aston made his patent application in 1901 and shortly afterwards made some arrangement with the London Exhibitions Company, ahead of what was to become the Paris in London exhibition at Earls Court in 1902; London Exhibitions ran the enormous showgrounds at Earls Court. The proposal was for the provision of a massive inclined spiral walkway that would allow passengers to enjoy an indoor scenic ride described as a ‘trip through the Pyrenees’ (and in one paper it was going to ‘bring the delights of Alpine climbing within the reach of all’). When the exhibition opened it featured in the brochure as ‘The Scenic Moving Way’, and the description of it reads:

The passenger, on stepping on to the moving way, which travels in spiral form, is gradually and gently borne in an upward direction through a series of magnificent mountain scenes. Ravines, peaks, gorges, waterfalls, are in turn unfolded to the view, yielding all the sensations of an inspiring clamber in the Pyrenees, without any of the danger or fatigue. The entire journey occupies about seven minutes. At night the tower is illuminated by some 300 electric lights, which are placed in spiral form round the outside,

The brochure claims this to have been the first of its kind in the world. The main tower was 100ft high with a width, including side wings, of 80ft, though I have identified that the actual outer spiral was about 30-32 ft diameter. The designers claimed it would carry up to 1800 persons an hour. Externally the ride was located right next to the great wheel, which was truly massive, and which somewhat diminished the impact made by even quite large structures nearby. The exhibition opened on 7 May 1902 but The Times only noticed the ‘spiral moving way’ in its edition of 22 August, referring to it as having ‘just been opened’. One is inclined to harbour a deep suspicion it wasn’t ready for the exhibition opening. The newspaper bluntly informs us that there is nothing particularly Pyrenean about the display, but that as mountains are much the same everywhere (!) it had been decided to dress it up as a French location to suit the exhibition.

At first the “scenic spiral way” passes through a smiling valley and up green hillsides. Then gradually the aspect becomes sterner, and at last snow is reached. After that the descent, until you arrive in the valley once more. The illusion is new and ingenious, and will help to amuse those who have finished studying the wonderful collections of dresses and figures in the Palais de Costume, exhausted the delights of switchback and water-chute, and are in want of a change after the bewildering sensations of the topsy-turvy house. The invention is interesting, too, from the mechanical point of view, and seems to be capable of all kinds of application. There is some idea of putting it forward as a substitute for lifts on deep-level railways. It would certainly save time, for it would be always moving, and it can be made to travel as quickly or as slowly as may be desired.

It is notable that the idea of deploying it on a railway instead of lifts had been spotted, and it can only mean an underground railway. The Times makes an interesting observation about the mountain scene looking fairly generic. According to the website, this display at Earls Court operated for four years, long after Paris had been forgotten.

The left image represents the spiral elevator under construction in April or May 1902. The right image is, I think, the completed device in 1904, bearing an illuminated sign apparently saying Glacier Slide, into which it has presumably been transformed in its conversion from French Pyrenees to Italian Alps for the 1904 season. The ride was immediately south of the Great Wheel which was located near West Kensington station. The London Building Act file indicates it was only licensed for a year, and though the licence was renewable the file is silent on the matter, though the structure clearly remained much longer.

The Earls Court machine differed from the patent in certain details and fortunately plans have been seen that show the walkway to have been about 17½ inches wide, though only about 16½ inches of it was visible as the ends were covered by wooden skirting. This was enough to accommodate nine cleats. The patent suggests that the actual tread pieces had guidance wheels at the ends but the construction drawings suggest all guidance was provided by wheels attached to the supporting drive chain. Gap between handrail centres was just 2 ft 6 ins. The plans, by the way, indicate that the machine was to have been driven directly by means of a gas engine at ground level. Unfortunately this is not shown, for it would not (I believe) have been possible to connect it to the centre drive shaft without some kind of clutch mechanism, and some means of maintaining constant speed would have been necessary. I will be keeping an eye out for more information on this.

In any event Reno and Aston were sufficiently convinced that Aston’s patent machine would be successful (with or without Reno improvements) that they volunteered at their own expense to install one in a vacant shaft at Holloway Road on the Great Northern, Piccadilly & Brompton Railway, then under construction. Like its predecessor in the Earls Court exhibition grounds, the machine was a double spiral, one for up and one for down traffic, and with a single conveyor ‘belt’ that not only reversed its inclination at top and bottom but had to change radius too; this presented some interesting engineering difficulties.

We know that the Holloway Road machine was intended to rotate clockwise (as one looked down on it) and operate at 100 ft/min. This time an electric drive would have been used, making the drive arrangement a bit simpler. The tread design appears to follow the Earls Court design, with nine cleats, but the remains clearly show wheels at their extremities, as in the patent. It looks as though the weight of tread and passengers was substantially carried on these outer wheels with the chain (which had its own wheels attached) supplying all the guidance and accommodating the outward thrust a spiral design would produce. Indeed the patent doesn’t show such a complicated arrangement and one might infer that this was an area where great innovation was necessary, and perhaps not adequately forthcoming.

This was quite an undertaking, and although it was pretty much completed by the time the railway opened in December 1906, it was not sufficiently ready for service and evidently created sufficient doubts in the minds of all concerned that it was eventually just abandoned. There has been endless speculation about whether it ever went into service and as far as I can see there are no reliable sources to indicate either way. However, we know that the Board of Trade inspection prior to the railway opening had formally ‘noticed’ the machine and had been told it wasn’t ready; the inspecting officer specifically stated that it would need to be inspected before it was brought into use but there is nothing in the file to indicate it was ever done. In addition, this was going to be quite an innovation and one cannot help thinking that if it ever had been brought into use then it would have left some kind of definite trace. I think it is very doubtful that it ever carried fare-paying passengers. Quite what went wrong has yet to be determined. My suspicion is that the technical challenges simply overwhelmed a company that was clearly in some financial difficulty and ultimately failed.

The shaft was wanted for something else in 1912 or thereabouts and the apparatus was dismantled above the lower landing, but just left where it was at the bottom of the shaft which was simply floored over; the only access was by an anonymous opening from the railway track to the shaft base. The remains were discovered in 1988, in shocking condition, and recovered. The find at Holloway Road indicates that the installed machine differed from the patented design in an important respect. The patent shows the bottom landing was at the lowest extremity of the machine. At Holloway Road the lower landing was at the same level as the passages to the lifts but the conveyor walkways continued down below floor level in order to negotiate the return path and engage with the driving mechanism. It is this return and driving arrangement that survived. Being under the floor this portion would never have had the balustrading so it is impossible to know whether it was ever fitted to the upper sections.

This must have been an expensive failure for Reno, but the exact reason for the failure is not yet known. A Scott Kietzman is also implicated with this enterprise, but he was not one of the directors.


This shows the spiral elevator (it was not an escalator) at Holloway Road during construction. The two workmen are standing on the narrow passenger-carrying belt at one of the points where the spirals pass, one the up track and the other the down. Balustrading and handrails are yet to be installed. Close study of the background suggests the image may have been taken at the lower landing level.
This is a picture at the top of the spiral walkway at about the time of the line’s opening. It looks reasonably complete. The passengers would have alighted on one side and boarded further round. The gate looks temporary.
This view of the spiral is taken just below the top landing (seen in middle photo) and shows at top-left the track dipping slightly under the landing floor from one of the top combs en route to the next set of top combs ready to pick up passengers and begin its descent, becoming the track in the foreground. The moving trackway and balustrades are still not fitted although the image cannot have been taken very long before the station opened. It is a good job the railway completed its lift installation here and was not reliant on this machine being finished.
Various pictures I took in 1988 when remains were discovered. Left and right show yoke supporting conveyor. Left shows section of drive chain supporting conveyor, above. Centre shows section of surviving inclined tread near its lowest point where inclination changed. Metalwork above is the floor inserted about 1912.
This shows (amongst the debris) the inclined trackway in background and, attached to vertical iron column, a beam carrying a bearing. This almost certainly held the idling end of the driveshaft which actually drove the walkway behind where I am standing. Drive was imparted by a central vertical shaft and bevel gears (which had all gone) where the more recent vertical concrete column now stands. The vertical shaft drove secondary drives higher up the shaft. It was not obvious where, within this arrangement, the motor was located.
The preserved section of Reno spiral elevator at the LT Museum Depot. Remains of tread portions can be seen on the upper portion.
Close up of step tread from above. The rubber topped wooden slats seem very high in relation to dimension of tread. The arrangement of supporting wheels can be seen, four to a tread.
View of the drive chain of spiral elevator showing it to be articulated to deal with vertical curves as well as horizontal ones. The step tread attached to bracket seen on left (to which label is attached). The inner rails provide guidance to keep treads correctly located laterally.

Later Inclined Elevators

After Reno sold out to Otis in 1911, Otis continued to sell Reno-type inclined elevators under its own name until 1924; some of these elevators continued in use until the 1990s on the Boston subway system. I need to say something about these as they are a source of confusion, for Otis decided to sell them under its ‘Escalator’ trademark, even though they were step-less machines.

The designs were based around the portion forming the passenger conveyor being entirely at a uniform angle, with no horizontal transition at either end. At the arrival end the conveyor portion terminated directly above an enormous drive wheel about which the individual platform sections rotated for half a turn to get back, underneath the machine, to a similar wheel at the start. The individual platform sections did not in fact present a level surface to stand on but actually comprised a succession of vertical cleats (mounted parallel to the direction of travel) with gaps between them. As each section ran off the drive wheel and butted up to its predecessor (to form the continuous conveyor) it was raised up so that the gaps between the cleats meshed between the tines of a solid comb-plate mounted over the drum and over which people passed to board the machine. The rear end of the cleats were slightly raised to grab anyone actually standing on the comb-plate. By looking down, boarders would have been able to see the sections being offered up, but  the arrangement ensured that there was never any gap large enough to present danger. At the arrival end the same happened in reverse, though it might be seen that as the platform section disappeared downwards into the works the passenger would already have been deposited safely onto the fixed comb-plate; the raised rear section of the cleats ensured there was never any possibility of a dangerous gap being presented. Simple, but effective.

View of loaded Reno-type machine, now badged ‘Escalator’
Close up of lower landing of Reno-type machine showing conveyor sections with slightly raised cleats at their rear, and bottom comb-plate.

There was an interesting incident in New York in 1912 when it was reported that a drive chain had broken on one of these machines and it had run away backwards causing people to pile up at the bottom. The following day, the New York Times somewhat back-peddled itself. It emerged that some kind of electrical surge had caused the reverser to operate irregularly and the machine had simply changed direction, catching the passengers unawares. Design modifications were promised. After selling out to Otis, Reno himself returned to the US and continued as an inventor and became involved in designing apparatus to recover shipwrecks; he also designed an early aircraft carrier and an electric rail system for Americus, Georgia.

There are lots of examples of inclined elevators, such as cliff lifts, but that is not for now (even though they might be suitable for the London Underground under certain circumstances – Greenford is mooted, but Crossrail is installing at Farringdon andLiverpool Street). I should just add that Reno was interested in devices that conveyed people upwards by means of seats attached to an inclined conveyor. They are not really part of the walkway/escalator story that I am focusing on, but mention it because there is a possibility that the device at Southend was of that form. I mention that it is reputed to have been transferred to a Douglas holiday camp and the only think that seems to fit this is the Cunningham Camp stair lift that came into use in 1919 and only went out of service in 1967 or 1968 (though is only now about to be demolished – click HERE to see its remains in 2011). If it is the same device, the date 1919 might be explainable by First World War requisitioning of the camp. Does anyone know any better?

The Cunningham Camp stair lift (IOM). Seats (backs just visible) are attached at intervals to a moving chain or belt underneath where the passengers are sitting. I have no information about its provenance but it is possible that this is the device previously at Southend (rather than an inclined elevator of walkway type).

Finally I should say that although inclined elevators went out of favour when practical escalators arrived, there was a resurgence of interest in the 1950s, possibly when large airports began to be planned and there was suddenly a need to move people around within increasingly vast buildings (I believe Love Field Terminus at Dallas Airport may have been the first, in 1958). Having said that, there was a proposal to link Holborn and British Museum stations by means of a moving walkway around 1909; although parliamentary powers were obtained nothing was done. I have not yet checked the plans to see whether it would have been level or not.

London’s Waterloo & City Line had endured half a century of appalling access at the City end that involved a very lengthy inclined subway where (in an attempt to make the gradient less uncomfortable) short flights of steps had been added at intervals; this gave the subway the appearance of a London sewer, from which (it is alleged) the nickname ‘the drain’ was given – a name assumed by some to apply to the whole railway. Ideas for escalators had arisen from time to time but site conditions were bad and costs high, and a pre-WW2 plan to install three flights of escalators was abandoned.

During the 1950s this line was operated by British Railways and they found that emerging technology might provide an answer in the form of an inclined moving walkway. This was, of course, hardly a new concept, but such machines were only just being developed again in response to demand. Lots of systems emerged (including types using a continuous rubber belt system, the Goodyear version was called ‘Speedramp’) but Otis came up with a variation of the escalator that used tried and tested technology: it simply didn’t form steps.

British Railways soon found such a machine would meet its requirements. American standards dictated that such a machine could not rise at an inclination exceeding 15 degrees (far shallower than Reno’s 25) but studies suggested that in London an 8 degree inclination would be most suitable; this required a machine 103 metres long. Construction was a massive job, much slowed down during various funding crises after work had begun, which was in 1957. It finally came into use in September 1960 and comprised a pair of machines that were level at the ends but soon curved into its slope. One machine always operated ascending, the other usually descended but was reversed in the morning rush hour to help clear the platforms (way in passengers used the old steps at such times).

Otis Trav-o-lator at Bank as installed in 1960. Note the illumination by uplighters at the sides of the machine imparting a sense of atmosphere (now gone).


This is the moving walkway at Bank today, one of only two pairs on the Underground, and the only one that is inclined. This pair is by CNIM and has replaced the original Otis Trav-o-lator (of 1960) when it became life expired a few years ago.
(Chris Downer, Wikimedia commons)

Otis selected the name ‘Trav-o-lator’ as its trademark for such a moving walkway and the pair at Bank was its first British installation. ‘Trav-o-lator’ is the name that was cast into the comb plates at the ends of these machines and Otis still uses the name for the British market. Other manufacturers produce outwardly similar machines and just call them moving walkways (the name Autowalk is used by Kone and I notice they also do inclined versions). So, from a trademark point of view, only Otis can use the name Trav-o-lator. Readers may have encountered the expression ‘travelator’. Now this is just my opinion, but I suspect that this barbarism was probably created by accident by someone who not only didn’t know how to spell Trav-o-lator but also didn’t realize it is the trademark of one manufacturer. It is significant that other suppliers do not (as far as I can see) use the word travelator, which might otherwise be construed as an attempt at ‘passing off’. This would seem to be the British position anyway; elsewhere in the world the position might be different. I certainly never use this dubious word, but always trot out Trav-o-lator when referring to an Otis machine (not that this is something I need to do very often), or moving walkway as the generic name.


The early development of the moving stairway

The first patent for a moving stairway was granted in 1859 by the US patent office to Nathan Ames. The patent envisaged a machine in one of two forms. Either a machine could comprise an up and a down channel side by side, or it could comprise a single moving channel arranged in triangular form whether the base was on one floor and the apex at the next; passengers would ascent along one side (getting off at the top), or would board at the top and travel downwards along the other side. In either case the machine had permanently formed step treads that were slotted so that at each landing projecting stationary teeth filled the gaps and provided a solid surface, the steps passing through the landing ends, as it were. The arrangement at the top of the triangular machine, where boarding and alighting passengers each had to board or alight sideways, looks particularly risky as the step had to flip over before beginning its descent. The concept does not seem to have been pursued at that time, possibly because Ames died in 1860. Leamon Souder patented a moving stairway design in 1889 (with related patents a little later), but appears to have taken no steps to develop the invention.

The earliest patent relating to modern escalators was applied for by George A. Wheeler in 1892 (US Patent 479,864). This produced a design that would be perfectly recognizable today with level landings and steps that were formed during that period of travel when steps changed levels. Each step was a triangular truck mounted on wheels that ran on tracks, as today; the whole lot were affixed to a chain, driven from a conveniently placed motor. Balustrades and moving handrails were also a feature. The patent referred to it as ‘a new and useful elevator’.

Wheeler’s 1892 moving stairway patent, pretty much describing machines
recognizable today

Charles David Seeberger was next on the scene (he was an American inventor born in Iowa in 1857, and died in 1931). He successfully filed two patents with the US Patent Office. The first was in 1895 (granted in 1899 as Patent 617779) which was for a spiral elevator, and another in 1896 (granted in 1899 as Patent 617778) making some useful technical modifications to this type of machine in general. He joined forces with Wheeler to produce an improved design of machine, which was then sold to the Otis Elevator Company in 1899. This design was called the Seeberger design (Wheeler’s involvement is not known to me) but it is clearly very much based on Wheeler’s patent.

The word ‘escalator’ was coined by Charles Seeberger, though the actual date varies according to source. Whilst the date 1897 has been seen, Otis understands that Seeberger came up with name in 1895 to accompany his spiral escalator design but it was at first rejected by the US Patent Office and not accepted as a trademark until 29 May 1900. The term escalator was a combination of ‘elevator’, already a known term, and ‘scala’ the latin for steps – hence ‘rising steps’. It became a trademark for Seeberger (and later Otis) machines, called ‘Escalators’, with a capital E. No other manufacturer was free to exploit that name and Otis actively protected the name until 1950 when the US Patent Office ruled that the name had become commonplace as a description of a moving stairway and that it was no longer reasonable for Otis to maintain the name as its own (the case had resulted from a challenge by a rival, the Haughton Elevator Company). After that, the name escalator, with or without a capital ‘e’, was freely used to describe any moving stairway and other manufacturers adopted it to describe their own products. At least one book on US trademark law is highly critical of Otis’s management of its trademark, citing the company using the word ‘escalator’ (trademarked) as freely as it used the noun ‘elevator’. It argues that a trademark should always be used as an adjective (as ‘our escalator moving walkways’) and that to use it any other way is an open invitation for its misuse by others who simply regard it as a new word to be used by anyone, and beyond protection. Otis was therefore largely responsible for its loss of control of the escalator brand in the US, and that made it hard to protect anywhere else.

It is probably a good moment to illustrate the importance of this factor. The Peelle company opted to use the name ‘Motorstair’, Westinghouse used ‘Electric Stairway’ (hardly inspired), and Haughton (now Schindler) used ‘Moving Stairs’. These are all pretty dreadful and accurately reflected their tiny market share. The competition must have been delighted when they were free to use the word already understood by nearly everyone.

Seeberger was clearly quite early in ‘inventing’ his escalator but seems to have been quite slow off the mark. He was involved in a patent dispute over this, and lost his case against the patent examiner who awarded priority to a rival device conceived by James M Dodge, another prolific inventor. It was accepted that Seeberger conceived his device in May 1895, but had not been able to reduce it to a practical machine, that was started in September 1898 and only completed in June 1899. He only filed his patent application on 22 October 1901. Dodge disclosed his design only in December 1897 but had something to show for it by 22 January 1898. The examiner had wanted to know if there was a satisfactory reason for the delay and concluded there was not, a matter the congressional committee agreed with. Dodge had filed his application on 22 January 1898 and had already had apparatus produced by the Link Belt Company which he actually showed to Seeberger; the suggestion was made that only then, when Seeberger had seen the advantages of the machine, did he decide to develop one of his own. Dodge did not actually assert that this was a copy of his own device, but there was a certain implication in what he said that this was a possibility.

It is apparent that Seeberger did not attempt to construct his own machines, but had some arrangement with Otis who agreed to produce them, presumably under licence. This was very sensible as Escalators would obviously be a threat to its highly lucrative elevator business. According to Otis the first machine made using the Seeberger design was made at the Otis Yonkers factory in 1899;  Otis spent $30,000 in its research and development, a phenomenal sum in those days and 400 percent over budget. From this we might observe that quite a lot of improvements were probably made. This particular machine was then exhibited at the Paris exposition the following year.

Three images of the prize-winning ‘Escalator’ at the Paris Exposition 1900. The left picture shows it under construction showing drive chain and steps already installed higher up. Most of the lower level portion will lie under the flooring. The middle picture shows the stylish installation as completed. The right picture shows the top landing with the ‘V’ shunt at the end of the walkway to encourage people to step off sideways at either side (the walkway disappears underneath it).

It is generally accepted that the 1900 Paris Exposition was the first instance where a moving stairway was displayed (with recognizable steps), and certainly the first occasion when an Escalator was displayed. There have been several other claims, but the reality is, as far as I have been able to establish, that none of the earlier candidates made steps, and therefore, by definition, cannot have been moving stairways. Earlier candidates may have been elevators in the sense of facilitating people changing level, but they were inclined walkways. The Paris machine by Otis made steps for the first time, and it was an ‘Escalator’ by virtue of its trademark. The Escalator was awarded the First prize for its innovative design and after the 7-month exhibition closed it was dismantled, shipped back to the US and reinstalled at Gimbel’s department store in Philadelphia in 1901. Invention & Technology magazine suggests it remained in service there for ‘almost forty years’.

The Paris Escalator had the hallmarks of machines familiar today with each tread being mounted on the upper surface of a separate truck, mounted on wheels (improbably made of leather treated with graphite) and which ran on a hardwood track mounted on rubber.

The first Escalators were designed to step directly onto at the boarding end, each flat step emerging from beneath the boarding point to form a level platform onto which the passenger walked, providing an opportunity to get used to the speed and hold onto the handrail before the steps formed. The arrival end presented a serious safety problem as it was felt that simply allowing the now-level steps to disappear under the floor would be extremely dangerous. A gap for clearance would be necessary, affording appalling opportunities for shoes, clothing and people’s extremities to get caught and drawn into the equipment. The solution was to install a huge projecting balustrade at the end and allow the conveyor to disappear under that. The balustrade was of triangular section, with its apex across the middle of the conveyor, forcing passengers to move to the left or right to avoid striking it. The side balustrading and handrail was cut back before this contraption so that passengers simply stepped off to the right or left onto terra firma. If anyone didn’t move they were simply swept off, relatively safely. This contrivance became known as a ‘shunt’ and became a feature of early Escalators; the particular type of shunt that split the flow into two at the top (as in the adjacent illustrations) are called by some ‘V-shunts’ because of their shape. Amongst the various objectionable features of this design, it meant that the machines were not reversible, at least, not in this form. Otis probably wished that it could have used the superior comb-and cleat design of landing used by Reno for his inclined elevators, but as Reno had patented the design this was not possible.

Top of a v-shunt Escalator. The wooden thing that looks like a dining table is the ‘shunt’, at the end of the moving walkway, and is angled to force users to step off to the left or right, as they prefer. This was a good method in a store (as here), but not suitable where machines were installed in pairs.

The Escalator took off relatively quickly in the US. The New York Times records that an Escalator was put into service on 19 October 1900 at Simpson, Crawford & Simpson’s store in New York. This was certainly the first Escalator in New York, and may well have been the first true use of machines in the US that formed steps. Macy’s seeks to take credit for its Herald Square store being the first to employ escalators in an entirely new building (which opened in 1902). It still has old wood-panelled escalators today, but they are fitted with cleat-type steps and must therefore have been modernized at some point. The Gimbel’s machine has already been noted.

The first application to railways followed quickly. The New York Times of 25 November 1900 refers to a machine, whose description fits that of an Escalator, being brought into use the previous day at 6th Avenue/23rd Street on the New York Elevated and describes it having 32 steps, travelling at 72 ft/min and capable of carrying 4500 persons an hour. At some point within a few years another Otis machine went in at 33rd Street and at Manhattan Street, on the Subway. In March 1906 it was announced a further machine was about to go in at 8th Ave/125th St at a cost of $50,000. The following year we learn that the railway through the new Belmont tunnel was to have moving stairways. On 27 November 1907 there was an announcement that Brooklyn Bridge was to gain an escalator. This is all solid progress, but not breakneck.

Escalators and the London Underground

It was early in 1910 that the Central London Railway looked into the available moving stairway technology with a view to its possible use at Liverpool Street, to which station the line was about to be extended. Cuningham, the general manager, was despatched to the USA to see machines in action, and he reported back in October. He inspected both Reno and Hocquardt devices, which were of the moving belt type, and thought them to be difficult to get on or off, with neither suited to handling busy railway traffic. He liked the Seeberger machines he saw and noted they had already been developed and improved (despite the need to step off sideways). On the strength of this, the board decided to install them at Liverpool Street, the first station to have Escalators from new. Given the friendly relationship with the Underground Group it is at least plausible Cuningham’s findings were shared with them.

By this time the London Electric Railway’s owners wanted to know how Escalators would perform in London and decided to install one at Kings Cross on the Piccadilly Line; for some reason the test site was subsequently altered to Earls Court and it came into use there on 19 October 1911, linking the Piccadilly and District Lines. An up and a down machine were installed in a single shaft. The machines were built by Otis and the design benefited from further improvements resulting from Otis taking over the Seeberger patents in 1910, acquiring a number of useful technical advantages in doing so. Seeberger stayed with Otis until 1915 and only died in 1931. UK adoption of the Escalator had not been fast. I have not yet identified any installations of an Escalator for a decade after the Paris exposition. Claims have been made but on examination they all seem to relate to inclined elevators, and lack steps. The Great Northern & City Railway mentioned in 1903 (a year before their Finsbury Park – Moorgate line was opened) that they were in the process of extending to Lothbury, and would equip that station with moving stairs rather than lifts, but the extension was never built. The first we hear of escalators in London is Cuningham’s study and shortly afterwards during the passage of the London Electric Railway bill, also in 1910, when it was explained that the company wanted to install escalators at Oxford Circus and had several other sites in mind. This co-incidence of action probably shows the prevailing wholehearted dissatisfaction with lifts and desperation for something better, probably a factor firmly in the mind of Underground manager Albert Stanley who had lived and worked in America until 1906 and would have been familiar with these machines and how useful they were.

The Earls Court machines were designed to operate at 90 ft/min. Although incorporating various improvements they still relied on a single drive chain and were initially referred to as Seeberger machines, though the official designation became ‘A’ type as newer types of machine became available. On all these machines the trusswork was reinforced by enclosure in sheet steel, a piece of over-engineering that was rather inconvenient by seriously restricting access. Although both Earls Court machines were intended to operate in one direction only, for practical reasons the ‘down’ machine was designed to be reversible so that in case of failure of the ‘up’ machine passengers would not lose the benefit of mechanical elevation. This facility meant that shunt landings were not only required at the arrival ends, but had also to be provided at the departure (top) end of the down machine (requiring people to step onto it sideways). These shunts were not of the ‘V’ type which allowed people to step off on either side because this would have been very inconvenient with two machines next to each other; instead, a much larger shunt was provided that made everyone alight on the left hand side at both top and bottom.

A press photo of the Earls Court Escalators on their opening day in 1911. I suspect the segmental fittings in the roof vault are there to shield the lighting from the eyes of those going down who would be dazzled by the lamps.

It was a characteristic of ‘A’ type machines that they rose at an inclination of 26 degrees 23 minutes 16½ seconds, a factor that later puzzled many people as the standard was soon altered to 30 degrees, seemingly more tidy. This ‘curious’ angle more sensibly correlates to a slope of 1:2 (or 50%), but not quite: it is actually a slope of 1:2.01555 (the magazine The Engineer abbreviates this to 1:2.015 but effectively confirms the angle). No plausible explanation is ever offered for this, but given the difficulty in constructing a sloping shaft upwards – for Earls Court was the first – one is tempted to think that 1:2 was the aim and that the slope actually achieved, with an error well under one per cent, was within the acceptable level of tolerance. Having produced the tooling for a machine to fit the shaft, it was easier to build subsequent machines the same.

All the ‘A’ types closely followed this design and it was not until 1921, when the ‘L’ type came along, that we see a standard rise of 30 degrees settled on (and so it remains today). Curiously, No 1 and 2 escalators at Oxford Circus were recently replaced. The shafts were built for ‘A’ types and the 1980s replacements had to be specially adapted to the reduced angle. They have now been replaced by 30-degree machines with the odd consequence that the passengers’ heads get closer to the ceiling as they proceed up the shaft—noticeably so, if one is looking out for this feature.

Plan of the Earls Court installation. Morning traffic from the District’s suburbs were directed straight to the eastbound Piccadilly platform. Homegoing traffic from the Piccadilly used the existing cross passage that previously just served the stairway. 
This shows the original escalators at Earls Court during installation in 1911, the photo being taken for the Otis Elevator Company Ltd. The left escalator has not yet had treads installed and shows the single drive chain. The right machine still has its original flat treads. Balustrading has yet to be installed. Visible to right is the fixed ‘shunt’ (not yet with its panelling) that encourages people to alight on their left and through the passageway. The treads continue underneath before disappearing below the machine for their return.

Unless and until I find evidence for something earlier, I conjecture that the Earls Court machines for the Underground were the first moving stairs in Britain. However, I have found a throwaway remark in an American article noting that at about the time the Underground railway escalators came into use there was also an ‘escalator’ at the Earls Court exhibition for the use of which a halfpenny charge was made. There is a second reference in “Men in the Public Eye” by Jeff Hearn (1992) who claims it was referred to at the time as a new ‘halfpenny pleasure ride escalator’. This cannot have been either of the Reno machines so it raises the question about whether or not this pleasure ride was a proper Escalator, and if it was then did it pre-date the railway ones over the road? More research to do.

This is the upper landing at Earls Court showing that the down escalator (on the left) also had a shunt landing, which required people getting onto the machine to step on sideways. This was because the down machines were technically reversible. Along the bottom of the shunts on these ‘A’ type machines ran a leather ‘shunt guard belt’, as the instructions term it. This ran between two vertically mounted rollers at each extremity of the shunt and moved so that it would engage with anyone remaining on the escalator so as to shift them to the edge and off the machine. The roller is just visible at the bottom of the right hand machine. Where the shunt was at the boarding end, the belt was covered over with a detachable panel.


This shows another pair of ‘A’ type escalators. Particularly noticeable is the shunt (at left) of down escalator which effectively reduced three lines of people into two. Note the way the handrail bends through 90 degrees to carry around the shunt. The shunt guard belt (described in previous caption) can just be made out in the above image at the base of the shunt. The ‘A’ type was distinctive in the way the handrails emerged from the top of the casing at the boarding end, seen on right hand machine.

Otis continued to supply nearly all the escalators for the London Underground until the 1990s. In Britain Otis had set up a British subsidiary company in Edwardian times but competition in the competitive lift business was stiff and in 1914 the (British) Otis Elevator Company was taken over by Richard Waygood & Co, which had started in 1833 and the resulting company was known (in Britain and the Empire) as Waygood-Otis, having access to the combined patents of its constituents. This is the name must usually found on older UK lift and escalator equipment.

A close up of a lower shunt landing of an A type escalator (I believe it to be Charing Cross). This shows the way the handrail twists before progressing around top of shunt.

After the Earls Court installation in 1911, ‘A’ type machines were subsequently installed at Oxford Circus (2), Liverpool street (2), Broad Street (2) [these latter two installations were both on the CLR and in use when the new station opened], Charing Cross (now Embankment) (4), Baker Street (2), Kilburn Park (2), Maida Vale (2), Warwick Avenue (2) and Paddington (2), making 22 machines in all. In all cases the ‘down’ machine was reversible so that boarding any down machine also required a sideways movement; at Broad Street both machines were reversible so, unusually, boarding the up machine also involved negotiating the shunt. Many of these early machines were rebuilt in the 1930s without shunt landings. At Oxford Circus the tight space meant that both shunts were on the right, requiring an extraordinarily long level section at the top so that alighting passengers cleared the shunt on the down machine (Earls Court was similar, but with left facing shunts). For some years the Oxford Circus machines were the longest in the World.

Two ‘A’ types remained in their original form until their end as it was expected they would only have a short life, but the war intervened and they had to continue for longer than expected. These were the two connecting Broad Street with Liverpool Street Central Line, the down machine remaining operational until 1951, and the up until March 1953 (though latterly only in rush hours). These were the last on the Underground (and probably the last in Britain) to have shunt landings. Incidentally, at some point not long after shunt landing came into use large notices were placed just ahead of the arrival landings indicating which foot should be used first whilst alighting – right foot for alighting to the right, and left foot for alighting to the left, depending on the configuration (it is hard to imagine anyone attempting to use the wrong foot as disaster was almost certain!). I rather suspect in practice everyone developed their own method for dismounting whilst retaining dignity.

Even as the Earls Court installation was going in, Otis made its next move resulting from which it came to dominate the escalator market for many years. In 1911 Otis also acquired the Reno Electric Stairway and Elevator Company, giving it access to further useful patents including those that embraced the cleat and comb system.

Where the first ever (step forming) Escalator without shunts appeared is not something of which I am certain but I suggest it was at Park Place on New York’s Seventh Avenue subway. According to Scientific American the station was sufficiently deep, at 38½ feet, that some kind of mechanized vertical transport was essential. However, site conditions here did not favour Escalators of existing design. First, it was desired for some of the four machines to be reversible during the ordinary traffic day to cater for the changing flows, and secondly the narrow platforms would make the provision of shunts very inconvenient. Accordingly a step-forming Escalator with cleated landings was devised. The machine also seems to have been a first in having a 30-degree inclination. The steps were only 18 inches wide and distance between handrails only 24 inches, sufficient for only one person to stand. Four of these special machines came into use in May 1919. These machines do not seem to have been of any prevailing standard design but must have contributed to the thinking behind the next generation of heavy duty Escalators, the ‘L’ type.

Otis developed the ‘L’ type in 1920 from the best elements of the Seeberger, Otis and Reno concepts and this included abandoning the shunt landing arrangement on their standard machines and employing cleated steps and comb landings; these became popular immediately (more Escalators were sold between 1920 and 1922 than for the whole period prior to 1920). The design was very different from the ‘A’ type and included two drive chains, one on each side, rather than the heavy central chain used before. The ‘L’ type only had one motor, while the ‘A’ type had been provided with two, though normally only one was operational and the other a reserve machine. The arrival and departure ends were also made identical, with the handrails emerging from the bottom of the machine from which they curved round the exposed newel wheels. There were also innumerable detail improvements and modified controls. A noticeable feature of these machines was the comparatively sharp bend in the handrails at the upper landing at the point of transition between level and inclined sections. This was caused by the handrail moving round a large driving wheel which also drove a further loop in the handrail within the balustrading. The ‘L’ type was the only machine to have this double drive handrail arrangement, which was removed when they were modernized in the 1960s. Another change was the reduction of visible step width from 48 inches to 39 inches with the balustrading flaring in immediately above the step edges; the distance between handrails was maintained and the change made no difference to the capacity of the machine. Step width has been maintained at this distance thereafter, though now metricated to one metre.

The Underground company resisted the introduction of cleated steps and combs and insisted on buying modified ‘L’ type machines with a specially designed shunt landing and continuing with flat-topped steps. It was felt that the comb arrangement was somehow less safe. However, the shunt was now of a special design where the whole thing could, if necessary, be swung out of the way in the event that it was desired to reverse a machine (an arrangement that required such a contraption at top and bottom). As far as I can tell this arrangement was only installed on down machines so that in the event that the up escalator failed the down one could be reversed to provide an up service. The normal up machine had a fixed shunt only at the top. No 2 machine at Bank (the centre of the three) was intended to be a reversible one that operated in the direction of the predominant flow of traffic and also had shunts at top and bottom. The instructions for reversing a machine indicates that this was a significant operation requiring manhandling heavy equipment. First floorplates in the area of the shunt had to be lifted out of the way. Then the shunt had to be swung into the new position (diagonal for arriving end or in line with the escalator, but to one side of it, if at the boarding end), then different floorplates put down (covering the whole of the approach at the boarding end, or the area to the rear of the shunt at the arrival end). We know the shunt was physically locked into position, but how the floorplates were fitted, moved or stored remains to be explored. I have seen a contract document which states:

Where shunts are provided at the landings of machines, means shall be provided-

(a) for swinging the shunt woodwork into a position parallel with the machine and covering over the steps to form a normal ‘step on’ landing; or

(b) for covering the steps alongside the shunt to form a normal straight ‘step on’ landing.

In either case the means provided shall be such that the conversion can be made by not more than two unskilled but instructed men in, say, a minute.

The specification for about ‘a minute’ seems implausibly quick, and in the later Bank specification it is replaced by the words ‘in a reasonable time’.

‘L’ type machines with shunt landings were introduced at Bank (3), Moorgate (2), Shepherds Bush (2), Stockwell (2), Clapham Common (1). London Transport often referred to their ‘L’ type escalator as the LHD type; I suspect the HD meant Heavy Duty, probably a subset of the larger L range. All ‘L’ types were built at an inclination of 30 degrees, except for two at Oxford Circus and one at Liverpool Street where, in each case, the machines were required to fit the existing shafts at the 1 in 2 angle. Although 30-degrees seems like an arbitrary tidying up it reduced the length of shaft required for a given rise, thereby reducing tunnelling cost. In London 30 degrees has always been considered the practical safe maximum, though in certain countries a 35 degree rise is considered acceptable.

On 1 December 1924 a new ‘L’ type machine at Clapham Common came into service with cleated steps, on an experimental basis (this coincided with reopening of station after reconstruction though a press item from 1923 indicates the experiment was at first intended to be at Stockwell). This was the ‘up’ machine and it was laid out for easy conversion to the older design with a shunt at the top if it had not proved satisfactory. The down machine was of the conventional design with moveable shunts at top and bottom. Whatever the fears that had been held by the engineers might have been, they were evidently satisfied by the results. All subsequent installations had cleated steps and over a period of about 15 years eighteen of the older shunt type escalators were converted to cleat and comb. The Clapham Common comb machine was described by the Underground press office as the first of the type in England, which probably draws attention to how little escalators had caught on outside the Underground.

Taking a Stand

Whilst on, it is worth noting that these early escalators were 4 ft wide, enough for two people. There is no evidence in 1911 that anyone was instructed either to walk or to stand (though notices implored users not to sit). At some point not very long after a few escalators had appeared it was obvious that some people wanted to stand while others wanted to walk, and the powers that be considered that it was therefore their duty to provide certainty and began instructing people to ‘stand on the right’, by which what was actually meant was ‘do not stand on the left’, which wasn’t quite so straightforward a thing to say. In due course notices appeared (and still appear), though this seems to be done in a rather desultory way; the notices are often only placed on the right, where people are already standing, and in such circumstances there is nothing to incite a feeling of guilt amongst those doing it wrong. It is a system which all Londoners know about and adhere to, but always seems to catch out visitors, who require instruction in the matter.

I’d like to know when the first instructions were issued to stand on the right, and what the rationale was, but can see nothing in photographs that announces that one must ‘Stand On The Right’ in London until after World War 2. I had wondered if it came about during the war, when traffic was heavier and there were lots of strangers about, notably troops? This theory is consistent with the well known Fougasse cartoon used on a 1944 London Transport poster showing a line of people dutifully standing on the right of an escalator, and one person on the left, wearing a large ‘L’ plate. The caption is ‘Please Stand on the Right of the Escalator’. So we know it was encouraged in 1944.


Since then I have found fragmentary evidence of audible instructions having been given earlier, though no notices, which seems odd from an organization that loved notices. The Daily Mail for 26 January 1921 has an item relating to the trial of a Stentorphone – a device that somehow deployed compressed air to amplify a message recorded on a gramophone record and able to bawl it out up an escalator shaft. The purpose was to encourage those on the escalator to walk, rather than stand. Several connected messages were repeated in turn:

Keep moving please!  Let others pass on the left!  If you must stand, stand on the Right!  Some are in a hurry, don’t impede them!

Whether this had much of an impact is sadly not reported. What is reported is that the machine got through one gramophone record a week and as far as I can tell the experiment did not last all that long (it was also installed at the foot of the Hampstead escalator at Charing Cross). This may be the earliest date where getting passengers to stand on one particular side was attempted, but I haven’t found anything between then and the 1940s that suggests rigorous enforcement was attempted. (The Daily Mail incorrectly spelt the machine ‘Stentophone’. I have found a description of the device HERE. The one at Oxford Circus was made by Creed and fixed at the lower landing between the escalators and was a one piece unit with integral loudspeaker pointing along the shaft).

One reason for the confusion is that other cities do it differently, but not all of them. Standing on the right (walking on the left) is the system in London (actually all of Britain), Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Seoul, Paris and Moscow. Standing on the left, however, is de rigueur in Singapore,  Australia and New Zealand. Countries can be inconsistent. In Tokyo users stand on the left but in Osaka users stand on the right. On the Montreal Metro, while walking on escalators is theoretically forbidden, this rule is scarcely observed and not at all enforced, and passengers tend to stand on the right. In some countries there is no convention and people stand on either side randomly as they please.

Reno actually worried about which side on which to put the moving handrail and after studying the matter declared that in his experience people tended to carry things in their right hand and the moving handrail should therefore be on the left. That logic suggests that people would more naturally tend to prefer to stand on the left. It is the same kind of logic that influenced posh staircase design, handrails being on the left (and stairs only making left turns) as one looked down, as the right hand was needed to use a sword whilst fending off the attacking masses (no I didn’t believe this either, but most old staircases are like that). Why London is different is of mild interest and I would love to know what thought was given to the decision.

There are some gaps in this story (such as where the Reno-Aston demonstration spiral was located), so if anyone has anything to add then do get in touch. Might as well get all this in one place and dispel more than a few myths.


US Patents

Reno applied 2 Jan 1891, award 15 Mar 1892, No 470918, Endless conveyor or elevator; incorporates conveyor, mountings, drives, cleated platform and comb plates and moving handrail. This is earliest inclined conveyor and is stepless, in common with most of Reno’s patents.

Wheeler applied 5 March 1891, award 2 August 1892, No 479864, Elevator; The first design for a modern passenger conveyor that formed steps. It is recognizable in its standard format of rising stepped portion with level end platforms but the patent allows for a triangular form with single upper landing and rising and falling sections at each side.

Seeberger applied 29 December 1895, award 17 January 1899, No 617779, Elevator. A design for a spiral (double-helix) type of stepped conveyor.

Wheeler applied 16 April 1897, award 17 January 1899, No 617788, Elevator; This made improvements to how the steps formed and collapsed, and most prominently replaced solid steps by ones of similar horizontal section but comprising sets of adjacent brackets separated by similar sized gaps through which the comb plate meshed. The comb plate (which should be slightly inclined) thus form a grating through which steps appeared or disappeared.

Wheeler applied 15 June 1897, award 17 January 1899, No 617789, Elevator; Further design improvements to his stepped machine including rounding of step fronts so when they form or collapse there is no gap.

Dodge applied 9 August 1897, award 8 February 1898, No 598722, Moving Stairway. A different approach to design of a machine, but still recognizable with level landings and steps forming intermediately. For this he was in competition with Seeberger.

Seeberger applied 19 May 1898, award 17 January 1899, No 617778, Elevator. Improvements to a design for a spiral (double-helix) type of stepped conveyor.

Reno applied 22 June 1899, award 21 November 1899, No 637526, Inclined elevator; a similar function to his earlier patent but redesigned with various improvements and retaining combs and cleats. This seems to be the patent followed for the Reno inclined elevators actually built.

Reno applied 22 November 1900, award 14 May 1901, No 673890, Inclined elevator; relates to improvements and in particular to arrangement of a duplex machine operated by a single equipment. The drawing also shows that inclination flattens at each end (though this does not seem to be part of the claim). The down handrail is made to reverse and also serve as the up handrail on adjacent track. Weight of down passengers partly used to drive up machine, reducing power.

Reno applied 15 February 1901, award 25 March 1902, No 696193, Inclined elevator; this was essentially a domestic device intended to be fitted to existing stairwell and comprising a moveable seat attached to a rail to carry someone up or down a storey. (A stairlift).

Wheeler applied 13 March 1901, award 10 September 1901, No 682513, Elevator; Further improvements to his stepped machine to simplify and reduce friction.

Reno applied 20 February 1902, award 9 September 1902, No 708663, Inclined elevator; this was an alternative development of previous theme for providing a kind of continuous stairlift for possible use in factories – a bit like a ski lift in principle, but supported and not suspended.

Seeberger applied 29 April 1902, award 14 February 1911, No 984495, Conveyor. This is a concept for a stepped machine that rises in one spiral and descends in a second adjacent spiral.

Seeberger applied 28 May 1902, award 18 December 1906, No 838654, Conveyor. This was a novel invention allowing any one riser to face in either direction by swivelling the upward-rising portion from front to back of each step as required. Seems a bit of a sideline.

Reno applied 14 December 1903, award 9 February 1904, No 751999, Elevator; essentially further improvements to produce device useful for transporting goods.

Reno applied 11 August 1905, award 14 November 1905, No 804266, Inclined elevator; essentially a redesigned tread belt with raised lower parts reducing angle of standing and improving landing arrangements (still using combs and cleats).

Wheeler applied 14 October 1905, award 26 May 1908, No 889080, Inclined elevator. This is a concept for a stepped machine that rises in one spiral and descends in a second adjacent spiral (but different from Seeberger).

Reno applied 11 Jan 1906, award 10 April 1906, No 817338, Inclined elevator. This was nothing to do with his previous machines but appears to describe the invention of the modern comb landing of a modern escalator, including cleated risers.

Reno applied 6 September 1906, award 9 July 1907, No 859252, Inclined elevator. A device for moving ‘trucks’ between floors of department store.

Reno applied 26 June 1909, award 5 July 1910, No 963176, Inclined elevator. This is the patent for the slightly stepped, cleated treads that effectively became the Otis cleated escalator.


British Patents

1892 No 5088, Reno. I have not confirmed details but it is probably the British version of US 470918.

1899 No 1091, Seeberger, applied 17 January 1899, award 11 March 1899; Improvements in and relating to Elevators. Essentially his form of moving stairs that progress in a spiral.

1899 No 1092, Seeberger, applied 17 January 1899, award 22 April 1899; Improvements in and relating to Elevators. Essentially his form of moving stairs that progress in a spiral. (Different from previous.)

1899 No 14813, Reno. Applied 15 July 1899, award 19 August 1899; Improvements in Inclined Passenger Elevators or Lifts. Essentially his inclined conveyor, comb landing, moving handrail and drive mechanisms (not included in American patent).

1900 No 23311, Reno, applied 20 December 1900, award 26 January 1901; Improvements relating to Inclined Elevators. Essentially this was the creation of a duplex machine where an up and down machine was operated by one equipment.

1901 No 20290, Aston. Applied 12 August 1901, award 28 September 1901;Improvements in passenger or goods conveyors or elevators. Aston’s designed for an inclined spiral, stepless conveyor.

1901 No 24423, Wainwright, applied 30 November 1901, award 30 January 1902; Improvements in inclined elevators. This relates to a seated conveyor that can be fitted adjacent to ordinary stairs and seems to have been provided to Wainwright by Reno and based on its own US invention.

1902 No 6022, Aston, applied 11 March 1902, award 5 June 1902; Improvements in driving chains for continuous elevators. Essentially an improved design for chain and step to make it more suitable for operation on a spiral machine.

1902 No 9188, Reno, applied 21 April 1902, award 25 June 1902. Jesse Reno; Improvements in Inclined Lifts or Elevators. Design for a machine carrying passengers seated on an endless band.

1904 No 185, Reno, 4 January 1904, award 3 March 1904. Jesse Reno; Improvements in Elevators. Essentially alterations to earlier designs to produce a freight elevator.

About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is
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13 Responses to Escalators, inclined elevators and myths

  1. Anonymous says:

    Wonderful article. Brought back to me memories of riding the said device in Douglas IOM. If my recollections are correct (I was very young child at the time) passengers were carried in a succession of wooden chairs rather than standing. Very noisey. An attendant was employed at the top to aid disembarking.


  2. Bryanmeccariello@me.con says:

    Mike, do you know when and who thought to put the white dots (or “insets”) on the hand rails?



  3. Mike says:

    Bryan, beyond what I say in the article in that it was done on the Liverpool Overhead Railway in 1901, on a Reno machine, I have no more information; whether it was done on other machines I could not say, but I suspect if it had been done reference would have been made. I suspect it was felt that where escalators were installed it was more obvious it was moving, so complex moulding would have been less necessary. It is interesting it is sometimes done today, but does not seem to be called for in any standard.


  4. This is the good description on the history of elevators and escalators systems.


  5. Ali Lewis says:

    Hi Mike,

    I am trying to find out who owns the copyright for a few of the pictures featured in this blog, particularly the 'Elevation of the Reno Inclined Elevator at the Crystal Palace' the 2 images of the first escalators in London at Harrods and the spiral staircase diagram patent by W. H. Aston. I have sent an email to you via the link on but not sure you have received it. Please could you reply to

    We are interested in using some of these images in a documentary we are making for the BBC

    Ali Lewis


  6. Ra'akone says:

    This is very insightful and enlightening. Thank you. One thing to notice, if looking for information, if you’re not confused enough…in North America, “Elevator” is what Brits normally call a “Lift”, although the Reno machines were called “Inclined Elevators” on BOTH sides of the Atlantic until they were acquired by Otis.

    Apparently the last place to have one of those “cleat type escalators”, as they later became known, was a department store in Philadelphia, USA, that closed in 2006.


  7. Robert says:

    I think British Rail direct you up or down the left side of stairs, whereas the Underground direct you up or down the right.


  8. Steve says:

    Excellent, informative article. The photos and diagrams are great – hard to find similar ones eelswhere online.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Mike,

    I hope you are well. This is a great blog with really useful information, the best I have seen on the web to be honest plus you have some amazing photos of the first escalator at Earls Court. I have sent you a message on your website in relation to this images as am currently making a documentary for the BBC and would love to use them for a small historical section celebrating the earliest escalators in the UK. It would be greatly appreciated if you could email me on when you have a moment

    Many Thanks



  10. its really helpful, thank you sir.


  11. Claire Harman says:

    Dear Machorne,
    Your terrific article on electric stairways has rather surprisingly helped me solve a long-running question about the dating of a short story by the writer Katherine Mansfield (in which she mentions an electric staircase ‘like the one at Earls Court’). Scholars have so far assumed that she meant EC Underground station, so thought her story had to post-date 1911, but here it is clear there was an inclined walkway at the exhibition hall from 1901. This is of significant importance to Mansfield studies and I’d very much like to use the illustration of the machine in a forthcoming book on the author’s work. Can you tell me where you found it so that I can source an image without a stamp?
    Can’t thank you enough for the thoroughness of your research. It answered all my questions!


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