Life in an elevator

Scientific American has a wonderful short article on the anthropology of elevators, tackling the psychology of travelling floor to floor and how they were eventually integrated into a resistant society.

The piece is full of gems about one of our most mundane of activities and I particularly liked this on a failed attempt at waylaying early fears about the technology’s safety:

Sociologist Joseph Gittler proposed that Americans initially resisted the elevator for personal use because they didn’t quite understand how it worked and this opacity contributed to fear for their personal safety. People were asked to put their trust in a system they could not see. In the confines of the car, visions of frayed cables came easily. Not even Elisha Otis and his “safety elevator” design were initially well received. Although, in truth, his unveiling at the 1853 New York World’s Fair was perhaps a bit dramatic and may have contributed to the elevator’s worrying reputation. Otis’ design included a mechanism that would stop a falling car – a version of which is still in use today. At the World’s Fair he essentially stood on a platform rigged with his device, had someone cut the rope holding the platform up, and dropped spectacularly before coming to a complete stop. While this did wonders for his business, and helped launch Otis Steam Elevator Works, it did not necessarily discourage public concern.

In contrast to the UK, I discovered it’s normal in Colombia to say hello and goodbye to people as you enter and exit the lift. This was so strange when I first encountered it that I just assumed that people must be recognising me and my memory was at fault.

The author of the piece turns out to write the Anthropology in Practice blog which I’ve just discovered and also is a great read.

Link to SciAm piece on the anthropology of elevators.
Link to Anthropology in Practice blog.


  1. Posted November 4, 2010 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    Sure the Colombians weren’t just setting up a prank? Like Scots and the traditional haggis hunting myths told to foreigners.

  2. Lizardo Cruzado
    Posted November 4, 2010 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

    Ese es el encanto de la gente latina pues, amigo Vaughan.

  3. Patricio
    Posted November 5, 2010 at 3:45 am | Permalink

    In Argentina (at least where I live) we also say hello and goodbye. I suspect that’s not the case in the quite less amiable -but also less rigid- Buenos Aires.

  4. eduardo
    Posted November 5, 2010 at 4:07 am | Permalink

    An article in the New Yorker covered a lot of this ground about 2 years ago, to my mind a bit more richly:

  5. kamSin
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    you said they say hello in lifts in Colombia. Well I am in europe and I have not seen this in the UK, but in switzerland and in holland its perfectly normal too.

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