On Top of An Old Elevator

The other day, while scouting a rooftop, my guide took me through an old elevator room and showed me the machinery, which he said mostly dates back to the 1920’s.


I’m always amazed when such old technology is still in working use today…


But my favorite bit was this panel, which looks almost steampunkish in design:


Every time someone presses a button in the elevator…


The appropriate circuit clamps together, causing a MASSIVE spark (I tried really hard to get a picture but just couldn’t time it right).


The best part? When several buttons are pushed at once, sending the clamps into a flurry of motion and causing sparks to erupt all over the panel. Made me feel like I was in Dr. Frankenstein’s lab.


PS – Looked like this:

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  1. I have been in newer elevator rooms. They don’t look much different.

  2. I hope someone gets you a camera that shoots video for the holidays.

  3. It looks like a disaster waiting to happen, but considering how elevator accidents are so very rare, appearances are deceiving.

  4. I went on a tour of the Woolworth earlier this year and was shown the elevator system. Apparently most of it is still original as well. Apparently they really built them to last back in the day.

  5. I love the sparks generated by the relays used for handling elevator calls. Interesting article!

  6. You would love the Eiffel Tower (if you haven’t seen it already – you can see the original, and still working mechanism that raises the elevators, which used to be greased by, if I remember correctly, oxen grease. Very cool.

  7. Your film fund has been driving me insane; just had to move it along. I hope that this is the begining of something great.

    • Lee, I can’t thank you enough for your generosity. I literally clicked over from revising my screenplay to check my email, and am heading right back to finish it and be sure it is 100% undeniably great.

      Thank you again.

  8. How many floors did the building have, give or take?

  9. Great stuff, but it’s really not amazing that this machinery is still working. Stuff was well-built, and in any case not all technology advances as quickly as, say, computer chips. Internal combustion engines, anyone?

  10. Hi –

    Rapidfire series of sparks from multiple relays switching circuits is actually not multiple buttons pushed, but a series of events programmed to happen in close sequence, such as a cab slowing down, then stopping, then the door opening, than that “call” being canceled. Yes, you heard it right: “Programmed,” which is accurate, as these mechanisms are early examples of programmable computers, with the switching relays (a switch like a light switch, but controlled by an electromagnet powered by electricity from the call button, or from another relay or switch) being the digital ones and zeros of modern solid state computers, which are just millions of those relays squeezed onto a chip.

    Fascinating, thank you.

    Henry Gifford

  11. I live in a pre-war on 84th and Broadway and we are in the midst of replacing our original elevator – the same model you describe above. if you are interested in taking a look or filming the elevator panel in action, let me know – i will be happy to show it to you (I am on the board

  12. I used to be a maintenance worker in an old 15 story industrial building in Union Square. I was working on the roof in the summer and it would get so unbearably hot up there I’d often take break in the elevator machine room. The machine room housed machinery similar to this, but poorly maintained and from the late 1800’s. The superintendent was seldom there, leaving me in charge mostly, so I made a secret midday nap spot in the machine room by setting up a small chair right next to the engine (incredibly dangerous). I remember being woken up the first few times nearly having a heart attack every time the switches fired. During the hurricane (Irene) the engine room, which was poorly maintained in the first place (stingy owner), had it’s roof destroyed beyond repair so the whole thing was replaced, just in time for winter and my midday naps took their place behind the equally ancient and poorly maintained boiler.