Jesse W. Reno, 1861 -1947: Up the Down Stair Case

My aunt who lived in Brazil in the 1950s once told me that when the escalator was installed in a local department store, the locals were so unnerved that they would not use it until it was turned off.

One sees their point.

The first escalator, dubbed the circular stairway, was an 1859 idea by Nathan Ames,  of Massachusetts that never got off the ground.   The inclined elevator, which did get off the ground, was the creation of Jesse Reno, son of the Union Civil War general Jesse L. Reno.

He came up with the idea at the age of sixteen, before attending college.   Various engineering and mining jobs out west – a man must eat – put the thing on the back burner, but it resurfaced as part of a grand plan for the the New York City subway system (1896), specifically, the means of getting passengers from below ground back up to street level.   It was really little more than a conveyor belt at a 25 degree angle, and no doubt murder on high heels, but it did include such niceties as the rubber handrail and those teeth you see at the start and finish which help keep you from getting dragged into the machine works.

The city nixed the plan (perhaps it was the double-decker car aspect, or, given the times, mere corruption), and the invention made its debut in a two week runs as a novelty ride at the Old Iron Pier at Coney Island.  Also (modified) at Luna Park, and in England,  at the Crystal Palace at Sydenham for a penny a pop,  which latter inspired the novelty song “Up the Sliding Stairs” by novelty singer W.P.Dempsey.

The public was clearly on board, and various department stores, notably Harrods, were convinced that this was just the thing to draw customers indoors.  (The story goes that Harrods had attendants at the end with smelling salts or brandy for those customers overcome by the experience. Would that Brazil had taken note.)

Riding high, Reno founded the Electric Stairways and Conveyors company in 1902

But progress caught up with him.   A George Wheeler  had solved the horizontal tread problem, and then sold the sold a patent to Charles Seeberger, who go his working model to appear at the Paris Exhibition.  Eventually both men sold out to Mr. Otis of elevator fame.

Reno in later years  toyed with a spiral escalator for the London Underground, but it never got past the testing stage.  Just as well, probably, though it would have made for interesting chase sequences on screen.

As to escalators, if my daughter’s persistent desire to run up the down stair case is any indication,  it’s still best viewed as a novelty ride.


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