Elevators and the Humans who Use Them


Like most ubiquitous technology, elevators are often ignored. But there would be no skyscrapers without them. There would be no tightly-packed awkwardness, no dusting of claustrophobic fear. Tune in to learn about the psychology and science of elevators.

Female Speaker: Welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind from howstuffworks.com.

Robert Lamb: Hey, welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind. My name is Robert Lamb.

Julie Douglas: And I'm Julie Douglas.

Robert Lamb: Julie, you rode an elevator this morning.

Julie Douglas: It's true I did. I rode two.

Robert Lamb: You rode two elevators?

Julie Douglas: Um-hum, two banks of elevators.

Robert Lamb: Oh, do explain because I only rode one.

Julie Douglas: Well, see you're coming in off of Marta.

Robert Lamb: Right.

Julie Douglas: So, you're coming in at the ground level so you only take one bank. But, if you drive into our office building you have to take two different sets of elevators.

Robert Lamb: Oh, okay.

Julie Douglas: So, I had twice, twice the fun.

Robert Lamb: Twice, huh. See, I took an escalator up from Marta and then the elevator up in our building. I could've taken the Marta elevator though I think it doubles as a bathroom so I try to avoid it.

Julie Douglas: I was about to say it's part of our public transportation system, Marta and I will confirm that it does smell like urine in the elevator banks.

Robert Lamb: Now, in this episode of course we're going to talk about elevators and it's not just gonna be a - we're not just gonna focus on the mechanics and all that though the mechanics are pretty fascinating when you break them down, we're gonna get into the psychology of it, the culture of it. Elevators of the past are possible elevators of the future a little bit but to kick things off here I wanna ask you and then I'm gonna ask myself the same question, name me a fictional elevator or elevator scene that particularly excited you and a real life elevator that you loved and or feared.

Julie Douglas: Okay, all right. So, I debated about this because I was thinking about this. I thought well, I think that the one that made the most impact on me is probably the elevators from The Shining because blood gushes out of them but you don't really spend much time in the elevators but just the idea that blood would come gushing from them and that got me into thinking about how in a lot of movies at least, the elevators are the scenes for awful things happening.

Robert Lamb: Oh, yeah?

Julie Douglas: Yeah, there's usually some sort of heist going on or in Silence of the Lambs.

Robert Lamb: Oh, goodness, goodness, goodness.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, remember there's the blood dripping down from the hatch -

Robert Lamb: I totally forgot about that elevator scene but that is a great sequence, terrifying.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, awful, awful. So, I started thinking about how that really feeds into sometimes our phobias about elevators because really, I mean what is it but metal canister that you seal yourself into which leads to again fears because I was thinking about a building called the Westin Peach Tree in Atlanta and it's a very tall building.

Robert Lamb: Oh, yes, the Westin, this is the one that looks like a big paper towel roll ascending into the sky.

Julie Douglas: Yes, yeah, a glass paper towel roll.

Robert Lamb: Has a revolving restaurant at the top -

Julie Douglas: Yeah, the Sun Dial Restaurant. [Crosstalk] Robert Lamb: Atlantians take out of town guests sometimes.

Julie Douglas: Yeah because it's like woo look at us, we're moving around as we eat. But the terrifying thing is that their elevator is glass and you're going up on the side and if you're someone like me who has a fear of heights then obviously you can kind of see the landscape unfold in front of you and you begin to inch up more toward the door, so those are my examples.

Robert Lamb: Those are some interesting elevators for sure, the ones at the Westin. I tend to really enjoy the ride but my wife she just kind of looks at the door and - she's not crazy about the glass I think and I think she's a little bit claustrophobic in elevators sometimes so - but we'll discuss the psychology of elevators a little more as we continue. For my own part, the real world elevator that I often think about I have to go back to my college days in Knoxville, Tennessee, University of Tennessee. There was a dorm there called Melrose Hall and I think male rose hall is still there, I don't know if it's still a dorm or it's been incorporated into something else but when I went there it was really cool because it was a dorm exclusively for international students and socially introverted people like myself who - upperclassmen who weren't leaving campus to find exciting apartment living but needed a room to themselves and a dorm.

Julie Douglas: When you got off the elevator banks, did it say that? Did it say Melrose Hall for the international students and the socially introverted?

Robert Lamb: Yeah but they updated it in recent years because when I went there, the beds were all really short like left over from World War II so I had to like sleep with the mattress in a really weird position because it had a footboard and I'm fairly tall and there was no air conditioning so during the summer you just had to sweat it out or live exclusively at night or go down and sleep in like the one or two refrigerated - not refrigerated, basically refrigerated rec rooms and it had this ancient elevator.

This dorm was not that tall. I think it was two or three floors above ground but one of the things that made it awesome was that there were two basements, there was a basements, there was a basement were there were just a lot of offices and dorms, some people actually lived in the basement and then there was a subbasement and to this day I wish I'd found a way, talked to somebody and found a way to visit the subbasement because I love the idea of there being an extra sub world down there and like what does it consist of, there are no dorms down there or are there, what kind of strange creatures live down there in the subbasement of Melrose Hall, I don't know and it also had a little gate, the old school gate that you had to pull across it.

Julie Douglas: Oh, wow, yeah.

Robert Lamb: And the clunky buttons that looked like they're part of a furnace or something. I loved that elevator, I have no idea if they still have it, maybe they replaced it or -

Julie Douglas: Sure they upgraded it, probably took out the great -

Robert Lamb: It was indeed great the G, R, E, A, T sense. Fictional elevators, I always come back to one of my favorite movies John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China. In this particular movie, you keep encountering elevators that only go down and I've always been inspired and fascinated by sub-worlds and underground spaces in this sense and so these elevators, they only go down are always really fascinating to me. In Big Trouble in Little China, there's a scene where they're taking it down as the elevator goes down into water and they have to escape and swim out to this kind of watery dungeon hell environment and then there's another elevator they take straight down which is plush and looks like a really fancy Chinese restaurant on the inside and there's a wonderful scene where all the heroes are packed into this little elevator and you have sort of a cliché elevator scene where people are just standing there doing nothing kind of awkwardly but then they're also having all this magic potion that they just consumed.

It's kicking in and they're starting to feel kind of magical and invincible. It's a wonderful scene but you mentioned all the scenes that take place in movies involving elevators and when you do think about them, the elevator becomes this interesting space from just a storytelling point of view because it is a space between. There's a space where you can encapsulate your characters and force them to have a little small talk and maybe push the plot a little forward, it's a great way to transition between one set and another and then you get into all the hijinks of climbing out of elevators, climbing on top of them, becoming stuck in an elevator, classic way to do a very limited episode of a TV show and it's always like a woman giving birth in an elevator, that's another big one that's always happening on TV.

Julie Douglas: It is?

Robert Lamb: Yeah, I think so.

Julie Douglas: I missed that, wow.

Robert Lamb: I feel like there's a super cut online on YouTube somewhere of just scenes of women who are pregnant in elevators.

Julie Douglas: Hmm, I'm not gonna check that out. As we're discussing this, this actually reminds me of the movie Inception which we bring up every once in a while but there's a great narrative technique now that I'm thinking about it of his psyche being in line with an elevator so when he plunges into his dream world, Leonardo di Caprio's character then he descends in the elevator, particularly when he has a very tragic memories that he's revisiting. So yeah, it turns out that the elevator is a great metaphor for, as you say, the in between spaces in life and it's something that we do take for granted but it is so fascinating to me because really you're talking about maybe a 20 to 30 second ride on an elevator and yet it can sometimes be the most awkward ride and it is one of these great things, it's a microcosm for really how we act in social situations.

There's so much going on in just that little stand up time and when you really think about it I mean what is an elevator but it's really a box suspended by ropes and a counterweight and remember for us it's not a big deal but if you were in the early 20th century and you were an office worker in one of the beautiful news sparkling skyscrapers, this would be a really weird experience for you and you would have to deal with getting into this metal box that's gonna go up this narrow little shaft and what that meant to you psychologically and I wanted to point out that this is about the time at least in the '40s when skyscrapers really became prevalent that you began to see Muzak or music being piped into elevators because what they're trying to do there is psychologically set you up for this feeling that everything is okay and they give you the most bland vanilla music to pipe in. So, again, we take that stuff for granted but if you were someone in that time period, 1900's to 1940's this would be kind of a weird thing.

Robert Lamb: And by the way the Muzak playing in the background there was track 2 from a 1974 Muzak LP known to collectors as the blue album. So, yeah you don't see Muzak anymore or at least I haven't encountered Muzak in forever on board an elevator, now they try different tactics to try and make you think about something other than the tiny suspended box in a shaft that is your environment.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, I read somewhere that the Muzak became so associated with elevator rides that they got rid of it because it was just reminding people that they were in an elevator.

Robert Lamb: Yeah and you still see the movies, I think people still reference that, the idea that it kind of drives home the awkwardness of an environment where it's like you're standing right next to a total stranger and there's funky music playing but not real funky music but like Muzak which is kind of the uncanny valley of music anywhere, this driving home the awkwardness and artificiality of your setting.

Julie Douglas: I love that and now I'm thinking about a robot just staring back at me vacantly in the form of music which is really what the old Muzak was like. Okay so before we go and give you guys a little bit of history of elevators and get things going with the psychology we did wanna cover something really important and that is the door close button.

Robert Lamb: Yes, the door close button which I think we've all hit it at least once probably ten, 20 times in a row, that feeling that I get when I've arrived on the train, I hurry up the escalator, I walk into the front door of the building and then there's an elevator already arrived on the ground floor just waiting for me so I get inside and I'm the first person in there. Now, at this point I want those doors to shut because if they don't like eight people are gonna show up and they're all going to different floors and we're on the - what floor are we on, the tenth?

Julie Douglas: Somewhere up there.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, I don't know why I can't remember that, I push this button every day. I've been reminded that we're on the 15th floor, technically the 14th because they skipped the 13th because that would be unlucky.

Julie Douglas: Uh-huh.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, so anyway I rush onto the elevator and I start pushing that door close button and it seems to take forever and I always thought back in the past well they don't - you don't want it to be a situation where you just push that button and it slams shut like guillotines, twin guillotines, that would be dangerous, you would need some sort of delay but it never really occurred to me that the button does not work at all or at least probably does not work at all.

Julie Douglas: It probably doesn't because it turns out that buildings that were built particularly from the '90's and onward, they are not usually keyed so that the door button works. Usually they're there just in case of an emergency so the door close button is really only going to work if you have a key for the elevator. I just want everybody to know that because if you've ever been frustrated and said why won't the door close and also a little bit of a fool and a jerk because you knew there was a huge amount of people who were stampeding towards you as you were pushing the door close, it's all for naught.

Robert Lamb: Yeah and sometimes, I mean rarely but occasionally it'll be somebody I know out there and also I'll go to push the door open button and it won't work or something and then I feel like a jerk because they're thinking I was frantically pushing the door close button to leave them on the bottom floor and people kind of get bent out of shape about their elevator situation. As pointed out in some of the resources we were looking at including the fabulous article up and then down, the lives of elevators by Nick Palmgarten, a 2008 New York article which is about 1,000 pages long of course since it's a New Yorker article but it's excellent, it's like a mini novel about the history of the elevator, the culture of the elevator and the one particularly harrowing example of somebody trapped in an elevator for I believe 41 hours.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, well we'll mention him in a moment but you're right it's set up really great because they take this guy Nick White, the guy that was trapped and they use that as a reference point.

Robert Lamb: Right but one of the points that Palmagarten keeps going back is and that - and some of the people in the interviews keep discussing is that we hold elevators to this different standard than we do anything else, like I take this train to work and if I have to wait 20 minutes on a train, it's just kind of part of it, it's Marta so I just whatever, it's just gonna be a slow ride and oh I'm next to somebody that's either a stranger or kind of awful that's just public transportation, no big deal, if there's a delay alright that's just part of the experience. On an elevator I expect to wait no more than 30 seconds, I expect to ascend pretty hopefully directly to my floor which again I'm told is the 15th floor and I don't -

Julie Douglas: Technically the 14th.

Robert Lamb: Yeah and if any of these things mess up I get a little bent out of shape about it.

Julie Douglas: Yeah and that's what's so interesting when you look at trying actually engineer a decent set of elevators and we'll get more into that but let's talk about the Otis elevator company because this really is the gold standard in the industry.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, you've all been seeing the word Otis inside your elevators all your life and I never really thought about it beyond just making a quick reference in my mind to old Andy Griffith's episodes where you had Otis the drunk and I imagine him on the elevator and that's kind of the end of it but they are the elevator company in the United States and one of the major players globally. Most of their work these days isn't even in the United States they're going to Asia in the Middle East and they're advising and installing elevator systems in these magnificent high rises that everyone freaks out about on the internet.

Everyone's always sharing a picture of either the newest skyscraper under construction or the plans for this elaborate skyscraper that they're gonna build in the desert somewhere and of course anytime you're designing a building like that, anytime you're looking to create something like that, elevators are an essential part of it. I mean without elevators we would not have skyscrapers because you need a way for able bodied people to reach any floor in a pretty short amount of time and then you also need disabled individuals, individuals who are not up to multiple - just for it to make any sense at all you have to have an elevator system.

Julie Douglas: And it's particularly an interesting business now with the skyscrapers and the tallness of them because basic physics will tell you that if you reach beyond 1,000 feet up in caballing for an elevator system, that's about the top of what you can get there because otherwise your cables will snap. So, you've got a bunch of engineers working on this spot because a lot of these buildings are much higher than that especially if you look at something like the Burj. So, there's some really good meaty problems to work on for engineers and mathematicians but before we start looking at more of the modern systems let's talk about Elisha Graves Otis. He founded the company Otis Elevators in 1853, when he figured out an operating system that could prevent free falls in passenger elevators which is always nice.

Robert Lamb: Yeah because the basic idea of an elevator is pretty ancient like the basic physics of hauling a box up, I mean that dates back to the ancient Greeks.

Julie Douglas: Well, yeah I've read something too about the first century B.C. Romans would operate lifts using pulleys with humans, animal and water power so yeah it is a very simple process if you think about it.

Robert Lamb: But yeah it wasn't until really that we had the safety features in mind that we could - and also the ability to build multiple skyscrapers that it really became a thing.

Julie Douglas: Yeah and then in 1948, Otis introduced the automatic elevator system and that eliminated the need for operators so no longer did you get into the elevator at least in most office buildings and was there an attendant there. Now, that did introduce an element of randomness because before this, you had someone in the elevator who knew where you were going and knew sort of the traffic patterns of people and will call that out to the operator so it was easy to anticipate traffic but when they moved to the automated system, it was a little bit more of okay well nobody knows really what the traffic patterns are anymore and people had to wait a little bit more.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, it was apparently 1940's where we saw that shift from operators to operator-less which instantly makes me think of madmen. I can't remember do you watch Madmen?

Julie Douglas: I've caught it before, I haven't seen all the seasons.

Robert Lamb: Well, they make a lot of use of the elevators because they work in a high rise so there's a lot of room for scenes where individuals encounter each other awkwardly or - well, generally awkwardly in the elevator but then also some excellent scenes there's one in particular where Draper goes to take the elevator down and the doors open to just an empty shaft and it has a lot to do with, I mean thematically of what's going on in the show at that point but it's a fascinating scene and likewise there's generally I think at least up to now in the show there's always an elevator operator so I'm kind of looking forward to the point when the elevator operator is no longer present because that's kind of an old fashion building that they're hanging on to that tradition and I kind of want to see Drapers face when that goes away.

Julie Douglas: That's kind of interesting too how that dove tails with the changing social ways at that time because you can kind of think as the attendant as the chaperone and that sort of - I guess you could say very controlled relationship is flying away during that time [inaudible] '60s and people are beginning to be freer so again here's the elevator, a microcosm of society in which no longer there's a chaperone there anything can happen in an elevator.

Robert Lamb: Right and now as we'll discuss a little later we're in an age where we see that amount of freedom vanishing more and more in the elevator, we see a technology taking over to the point to where we feel we're just at the whim of whatever mysterious mechanical force is controlling this magic box.

Julie Douglas: Oh, yeah and there you go with the door close button right, that's just an illusion of free will. One of my favorite things that I stumbled upon when we were researching this is an old clip from a Candid Camera show. You remember that show?

Robert Lamb: Yeah this is where they would - kind of a forerunner of reality shows, kind of like what was the show, Punk'd I think was the MTV thing a couple of years back.

Julie Douglas: With Ashton Kutcher.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, where they would prank people. Yeah, it's just a prank show they do and some of it bordered on what we would now call almost performance art or theatre everywhere kind of shenanigans where you're creating something weird in a public space and seeing how people react to it.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, so I mean actually in its purest form, it really is 4kind of a social experiment because nobody was doing them before that and so you had this Candid Camera crew set up basically confederates and we've talked about confederates before, these are people who are in on an experiment or a joke and what they did is they filmed an elevator, a bank of elevators, they had like five different confederates go into an elevator and then a person who's not in on it go in and observe what's going on and quickly you could see that people would react accordingly like they would feel the pressure of those around them to do the right thing socially so what I mean is that if five confederates go in and they all turned around and faced the wall which is an unusual thing to do in an elevator, the person will look around and then join them.

Robert Lamb: Right and some of these they will sort of hold out at first but then they would succumb to the group think and look at the wall and it's fascinating because there's this sense of conformity and wanting to look like you know what's going on like I've been in - and we've all probably been in elevators before we have a door on both sides. I particularly seem to encounter these in hospitals for some reason just because some of the weird floor layouts involved and there is this kind of confusion that takes over which door is gonna open, not only do I need to know which way I'm going and there's this sort of basic directional survival instinct in your mind, we also don't want to look like you don't know which door it is, you want to appear in control, you want to feel in control in this thing.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, you don't want to look like a rube and that's what's so funny about this Candid Camera clip because the confederates continue to turn, turn to the right and then the guy turns to the right and then they turn to the opposite, to the left and so on and so forth or they all are wearing hats and they take their hats off and he takes his hat off. So again microcosm of what's going on socially in the pressures that we feel to conform and it was just a really elegant little social experiment that was conducted by Candid Camera of all people.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. We're talking about the psychology of elevators at this point so there are a few different factors that are mandatory in discussing our mindset inside of this magic box the first of which of course as we touched on earlier, wait times, how long is this ride going to take because even if you're in there alone you don't want to be there too long and this is actually the sort of thing that elevator strategists and elevator designers are very key to understand and they vary from culture to culture but in the United States, 30 seconds, that's as long as anyone is tolerant being on an elevator.

Julie Douglas: And this is really important, it sounds kind of random, right, 30 seconds so what's the big deal but it turns out that office space is far more desirable if they can deliver people in that 30 seconds or less time frame. So, you wanna have a good office space that can deliver this and what's interesting about this is that when you get out of an office situation and more in, let's say an apartment building situation people are much more forgiving so you can add another ten or 15 seconds onto that.

Robert Lamb: In an apartment building?

Julie Douglas: In an apartment building.

Robert Lamb: Yeah because people - yeah, their personal affects it's more about life going on and less this is a job I need to get where I'm going, I don't have time for your job. It reminds me though another college elevator thing was another dorm I was in is called [inaudible] in the University of Tennessee and this one was - I think I was on the tenth floor of this particular dorm and it was awful because we had two elevators serving the entire building and the wait times were just colossal unless you were like - the middle of the night or something or some weird time but the morning hours, afternoon hours like key traffic times of the day it was just a colossal weight, the door would open and it would already be packed and you end up just taking ten flights of stairs in the summer and just totally exhausting yourself and sweating all over the place just because the elevators were that bad and now nobody wants to encounter that like that just makes - we have no tolerance for it.

Julie Douglas: And you know every once in a while you will encounter an elevator bank like that and what it's doing is that it's not cross referencing in any of the data that we're talking about later, it's not very sophisticated, it's basically just saying I'm gonna stop at every stop that's going up, load people up and then I'm gonna go back down and I'm gonna stop at every single floor so it's just sort of a single function elevator.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, in the New Yorker article that we were looking at, he interviews a man by the name of James Fortune who's pretty much the top class elevator advisor, strategist designer, gets into all of these questions of how are we gonna lay this out for maximum efficiency and some of the things he discussed were things I never really thought of like for instance you want to cut down as much as possible on floor to floor travel, inter-floor travel because that, the idea of - even in our building where I know that you cannot travel between floors via the staircase because of the lock system. It's setup so that if you wanna take the stairs you better be going to the ground floor, there's no using it to go in between floors, it's just part of the safety system here so I'll see individuals who work for a business that occupies two different floors in this building, I'll see them go from one floor to the other and even though I rationally know that they have no choice but to do that I still have this really judgmental voice in my head, it's like come on lazy, take the stairs, what's the matter with you, I guess it's a holdout from my college days in that awful dorm.

Julie Douglas: It's funny, in that New Yorker article I think that the author talks about how that's really infuriating as well and I believe that his perspective is like okay you're gonna get on the stair master for an hour after work but you won't take the stairs. Now of course everybody can - has that luxury, as you said there -

Robert Lamb: Yeah or you're moving next to someone with a bunch of files or some coffee -

Julie Douglas: Right, right or maybe you have something physically going on that prevents you from doing that but you're right, mathematicians cannot stand it, they hate that because that is an X fact that they cannot account for because they have all these probability scales that they can rely on but that's the one thing that will throw them off because how can you account for that?

Robert Lamb: Yeah, some of the other rules that he goes into for instance if you have a hotel and you have a cafeteria or you have a check in on the second floor that floor better be accessible via an escalator or likewise for a high traffic subfloor. For instance when we were in Minneapolis for the educational talk we gave, I noticed the bottom three floors were all connected via escalators and I realize now that is because they didn't want traffic, high traffic between those three floors monopolizing the elevator banks.

Julie Douglas: That's right and they only - because they have a really small amount of elevator banks right.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, it was a pretty small amount for a tall building.

Julie Douglas: And that's another thing, architects don't wanna see to a lot of square footage to elevators because that's gonna decrease the profits and the amount of office space [inaudible] that they can rent out so they have to make it as small space and as efficient as possible and you also have to take into account personal space which is tied into culture and we'll talk a little bit more about that.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, how close am I willing to get to the person in the elevator with me?

Julie Douglas: Yeah, Edward Hall who pioneered the study of proxemics called the smallest range less than 18 inches between people intimate distance now this is the point at which you can sense another person's odor and temperature and the thing is that Americans typically like to be at least 2.3 feet away from one another so they don't wanna get to the point where they can smell you or feel your body temperature.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, I mean even in the United States, you see a certain breakdown between say New York City and everywhere else like if you're dining say in a New York restaurant versus elsewhere like here in Atlanta, you go to a restaurant, you expect to have a certain amount of space between you and other diners. You expect the tables to be a fair distance across but like you go into a lot of New York eateries and there are gonna be elbows bumping. You're gonna be looking down the shirt of the person directly in front of you, there's just a different proximity rule in New York city than there is in the rest of the country.

Julie Douglas: Yeah and it turns out that in united states at least you can sort of infringe on that 2.3 feet, you can go about two feet in with Americans and still be okay where you can jam that elevator and as long as everybody has two feet they're okay with it but as you say like there are different rules in different places and in Asia you can double pack that elevator and people would be fine because they don't have that much of a need for distance.

Robert Lamb: Right and you see that elsewhere like public transportation. We see the difference in that in the Japanese subway system and public transportation here in the states and how comfortable are people willing to pack. Now, I've certainly been on some Marta trains before where it's just like sardines in there but everyone is visibly upset by the situation.

Julie Douglas: Especially in the summer time when the cars air conditioning isn't working. So, again this is pointing more toward cultural norms what works out for each culture and there's a really great article in the wall street journal and they have profiled an Otis Elevator mathematician Theresa Christie and she tries to account for all the different cultural aspects as well as everything else that's involved in getting an elevator to run smoothly and so she was saying that a hotel in say Mecca in Saudi Arabia she now has to account for the fact that people are getting ready to pray at least five times a day so she has to make sure that those elevator banks can respond to those high traffic times.

Robert Lamb: Yeah and that's certainly a fact that is gonna be involved in any of these middle eastern high rises that are always making the news either in construction or planning.

Julie Douglas: And then she was saying that in Japan there's a psychological element to waiting's so they want to know when their elevator is coming. So in Japan the light over your prospective elevator lights up even if it's not there yet and the author of the Wall Street Journal likened it to a nod of acknowledgement from a busy bartender which I thought was great because if you've ever gone up to the bar and it's completely slammed and you feel that frustration until you get -

Robert Lamb: Like does nobody notice that I'm here, am I not classy enough looking, is this because of me and yeah you can get a little stressed out about it so I can imagine you get to the elevator banks and you want to know an elevator is coming and so they're set up to deal with that.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, so those are just some of the cultural aspects of it. Now we probably should mention Nick White real quick. This is the guy that was trapped in the elevator in 1999 for 41 hours.

Robert Lamb: Yes and his story has covered various articles across the net and it serves as kind of the narrative background of Palmagarten's 2008 article which again I highly recommend everyone read because it's brilliant but yeah he worked at business week I think it was and the elevator system there was a little archaic. I think they had four elevators or at least there were four -

Julie Douglas: In the video camera.

Robert Lamb: So, he's at work and I think he goes down for a smoke and he's coming back up.

Julie Douglas: It's like a Friday evening, let's say 5:00 or something, it's later in the evening.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, so he's going down to smoke and what happens?

Julie Douglas: Well, I think he was traveling up to the 43rd floor and he must've made it up to - well, he definitely made it up to the 13th floor because I believe that's where it stopped and so he doesn't freak out right away. He starts calling the emergency button.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, like you do yeah there's a button there for emergencies and so you push it.

Julie Douglas: No one, no one, nothing, zero. So, the video camera - sorry the security system that you see, the video footage from this is pretty fascinating because they speed it up over that 41 hours and you see him pacing, you see him lying down and you see him fiddling with his cigarettes because at first he wants to be the model employee and not smoke in the elevator even though he's definitely feeling pretty stressed out at this point because hours are going by and then he begins to have aural hallucinations because he's hearing things, we're talking about -

Robert Lamb: We've talked before of this on the podcast, you have a limited environment our brains need more stimulation than that so they start overanalyzing everything and eventually they start interpreting data that isn't actually there.

Julie Douglas: Right and 20 hours passed, 30 hours passed, he's getting dehydrated, he hasn't eaten and of course the hallucinations are coming on and he begins thinking that this is a tomb, that he's going to die in this, they're gonna open the doors and -

Robert Lamb: Because he's tried pushing the button, nothing's happened, he pried open the doors and it's just a solid wall and I think he sees 13 scrawled there which is also pretty ominous.

Julie Douglas: That doesn't help.

Robert Lamb: Yeah of course and he's seen enough movies to know that he should try to open that little hatch in the ceiling but he can't because in real life, surprise, surprise climbing on top of an elevator is incredibly dangerous so they do not want you to do it, it's bolted from the outside so that if someone needs to get in and help you out they can but it prohibits people from potentially killing themselves by climbing on the roof.

Julie Douglas: Well because apparently and this is not gonna surprise you any but at some point in history elevator riding became a thing and people did it.

Robert Lamb: Oh, like elevator surfing, yeah.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, elevator surfing and you've got those counterweights going by which can decapitate you so it has for good reason to lock those, it is only for emergency situations and he's in an emergency situation and he still can't do anything about it but I feel so bad for this guy because the elevator kind of broke him.

Robert Lamb: Yeah.

Julie Douglas: 41 hours passed, he gets out, he asks for a beer, he's disoriented -

Robert Lamb: He doesn't know what day it is, he doesn't really know how long he's been in there totally and it kind of ruins his life.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, his job of 15 years that he held he's let go from, he's obsessed and angry about it, he didn't know why people didn't come and find him because you hear someone he just went out for a cigarette break and he just wants to know why.

Robert Lamb: And the video footage was there like somebody was sitting there walking by and did not notice that there was only ever one individual inside of that car and sometimes they were laying down for hours at a time. So, yeah you totally sympathize with this man's breakdown because he was really dealt a foul card on this one.

Julie Douglas: Yeah and it's funny. I believe it's in that Up and Down article or one of the articles that we read at least it may be another one but in one of those articles, they talked to him about it and he's like of course I still have to use elevators and yes, I still try to distract myself but I thought about that when I got into my own elevator bank, you've got to captivate - at least in our office you have to captivate screen as trying to distract you from the fact that you're in an elevator.

Robert Lamb: Which is brilliant because you get in there and there's no Muzak but there's this little TV screen that give you tidbits about the weather, quick headlines, that sort of thing and it can be a lifesaver if you're stuck on there not with a complete stranger but sort of with a pseudo work stranger, like someone you really don't know that well but you feel obligated to speak to them and then all you have to do is look up and captivate and it'll give you the weather and you go like whoa look it's raining Saturday, how about that or whew look at that Olympic headline. Instantly you have some sort of nugget that you can probably discuss awkwardly for 30 seconds or less.

Julie Douglas: Yeah because I mean that again is the thing about the elevator is that psychologically you're going to want to have again the most vanilla conversation because on a very primal level where it's happening is that you're all stuffed into this elevator, you have no control and so what the human thing to do here is to try to go the spot where you feel non-threatened and really that's what we're talking about here is at the end we're all a bunch of animals anyway so we're all stuck in this elevator trying to make sure that in that 20 seconds nothing bad is going to happen, therefore the weather is fine, you can talk about that if you must talk.

Robert Lamb: Yeah and then we go home in the evening and watch movies and TV shows about bad things happening in elevators because we can't help but upset we have to find that release in our fiction where somebody's having to have a baby in an elevator, somebody's having to crawl on the roof of an elevator or your elevator is descending into a Chinese hell where people are drowned alive.

Julie Douglas: You know, we should probably take a break.

Robert Lamb: Yes, we are going to take a quick break I guess for like 30 seconds and when we come back we will continue with elevators into the planning that goes into them, the - and also the future of the elevator, what might that be like. You know Julie, this episode we're talking about technology and its impact on the world and there's no doubt that small business operations have improved over the years because of technology and that includes mailing and chipping thanks to stamps.com.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, with stamps.com you can buy and print US postage using your own computer and printer whenever you need it 24/7 and there's no more wasting time at the post office which is kind of a hassle, there's no need to lease an expensive postage meter because stamps.com offers more features than [inaudible] and at a fraction of the price plus stamps.com customers receive special discounts on mailing and shipping you can't even get at the post office so that's on priority mail, express mail and more so stamps.com customers already have printed over more than $3 billion in postage.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, we use stamps.com when we need to send out the odd bit of merchandise or correspondence and I can see where it would be extremely valuable for a small business out there and hey right now there's a special offer. If you use our promo code stuff, S, T, U, F, F you can get a no risk trial plus $110.00 bonus offer which includes the digital scale and up to $55.00 in free postage so do not wait, go to stamps.com right now before you do anything else and click on the microphone at the top of the home page and type in stuff. That's stamps.com enter stuff, S, T, U, F, F and start printing out some postage. All right we're back, the elevator doors have opened and we have arrived on the floor for the second half of this episode of elevators.

Julie Douglas: That's right and in order for us to start talking more about the mathematical puzzle in earnest we have to talk a little bit more about how our modern elevator system works. So, one of the first things to know is that when you get into an elevator it is automatically outfitted with [inaudible] sensors in the floor and that manages the amount of weight that's in the car so if you've never been in an overcrowded elevator and you hear the door dinging it's because the sensor is saying hey man someone's gotta get off.

Robert Lamb: Yeah and that's why elevator sensors and also hotel personnel can and will get visibly upset if people are jumping up and down in an elevator.

Julie Douglas: Um-hum, now most elevator systems have a computer that logs a bunch of things, a bunch of, I'll say, requests. These things that they log is where a person wants to go, where each floor is and where the elevator car is in that time and space so if you press a button for the floor you wanna go to the computer logs the request and then the computer knows where the car is by either a magnetic sensor or a light sensor and it's feeding all that information to itself in algorithm. More advanced programs will take passenger traffic patterns into account, they know which floors have the highest demand and what time of the day and they direct the elevator cars accordingly if you're lucky, if you're in the office building.

Robert Lamb: North [inaudible] hall, the UTK did not have an advanced system.

Julie Douglas: No, it did not. In a multiple car system the elevator will direct individual cars based on the location of other cars so all that is going on in the background as soon as you press a button.

Robert Lamb: So, it all leads to this big mathematical puzzle, it's how do you get from point A to point B, how do you get the cargo, the human cargo from point A to point B with the least amount of issue without just totally clogging up the whole system without angering the people that are working there but then also getting by with really maybe not the minimum but a minimum amount of elevators because elevators take up a lot of space, you need the shafts, you need the equipment rooms for them and granted certain technological advancements have cut down on the amount of equipment needed to run it but for the most part you're talking about a lot of space in a building and space is valuable, space is pricy. Remember, that's why we're building skyscrapers to begin with because we want to maximize the amount of office that we can fit on a single piece of land and if we end up filling up most of that with elevators that kind of defeats the purpose.

Julie Douglas: And also kind of depends on the function of that building, that's something that a lot of engineers and mathematicians have to take into account so if you look at something like the Bronx family court system the building that that's housed in and you look back in 2007 you'll see that that whole court system was completely messed up, it was an absolute disarray because the elevators at its court house kept breaking down -

Robert Lamb: You couldn't use the stairs, it wasn't like in our situation where the stairs are only for fire exits so they're not accessible, they shut off the stairways because there was a safety risk, they were just like an escape from New York hellhole if you tried to take the stairs down to the Bronx.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, so if you had to go to the courthouse in the Bronx in 2007 you were screwed because this led to hour long waits which lead to missed court dates which lead to needless arrest warrants and of course just the general messing up of people's lives.

Robert Lamb: Yeah.

Julie Douglas: Now this is something that mathematicians and engineers really want to try to avoid if they can so they start to look at various probabilities, they've got probability tables that they rely on and they start to try and figure out this puzzle of elevator systems so for instance if there are ten people in an elevator that serves ten floors that will likely make 6.5 stops, you've got ten people, 30 floors and then you got 9.5 stops, this is somewhere they can start from.

Robert Lamb: This is just the odds of traffic.

Julie Douglas: Now, there are two basic elevator metrics, one is handling capacity so that's carrying a certain percentage of the buildings population in five minutes and by the way 13 percent is ideal so if you have 5000 in a building then 13 percent of those 5000 people should be serviced by your elevator system. The other metric is the interval or the frequency of service so the average round trip time of one elevator divided by the number of elevators. Okay, so now think of all the other factors like door open and close time.

Robert Lamb: Yes.

Julie Douglas: Loading and unloading time. You guys out there who are looking at your smartphones or your blackberries when you should be disembarking you know who you are.

Robert Lamb: Right, you realize at the last second that you were supposed to get off so then you make [inaudible].

Julie Douglas: Right, you're increasing the loading time.

Robert Lamb: Or you're in a situation where the thing is packed and who needs to get off the elevator the little old lady in the back of the car. So, everyone sort of has to disembark and they're a little wigged out because they have to do this and oh what if they get stranded on the elevator because that's the - it's kind of a mild fear if you get off on the wrong floor you're gonna have to take the elevator again to maybe to the bottom depending on the system and it's gonna be a whole headache.

Julie Douglas: And you also have acceleration rate and decelaration rate so when the elevator is stopping and of course what we talked about before inter-floor traffic which is the thing that's sort of the wrench that you throw in that just kind of messes everything up.

Robert Lamb: Oh, and then to say nothing of phantom button pushers, that is always the worse when it opens and nobody's there, where did they go. I guess in reality there might have been another elevator coming up and someone got off on that floor and then they just hitched a ride on that one since it was there but then my elevator arrives and it opens and you're like I guess it's just the little girl from the shining again.

Julie Douglas: Or the phantom farter.

Robert Lamb: Is that - oh, I guess that is a thing.

Julie Douglas: That is a thing, I think.

Robert Lamb: Yeah.

Julie Douglas: The phantom farter pushed the phantom floor.

Robert Lamb: Because that is another unfortunate reality of elevators, two people in an elevator nobody is allowed to pass gas because it will be known who did it but three or more, people just feel like they have an open license to just let it rip and it's an enclosed environment.

Julie Douglas: Well and there are some people who do it on purpose.

Robert Lamb: Really? People like?

Julie Douglas: I know someone in my family and I'm not gonna going to mention - I told you I have a very scatological family, they do this on purpose.

Robert Lamb: That's good to know.

Julie Douglas: Anyway that is not fortunately a factor that mathematicians have to figure out the actual farting capacity but I did want to mention again that Otis Elevator mathematician Theresa Christie because she develops algorithms using a computer simulation program and that replays elevator decision making. So, she gets to see it in real time and in that wall street journal article called the ups and downs of making elevators go she says I feel like I get paid to play video games, I watch the simulation and I see what happens and I try to improve the score on getting - which is so cool, I love that that's part of the process that she's thinking about it that way and she recently worked on the empire state building and was able to increase the amount of time by I think ten seconds the time that they're actually in the elevator.

Robert Lamb: The history based on some of the material we're looking at you can basically write a book just about the history of elevators in the empire state building because they've been around for so long, you have some really catastrophic things happening from time to time, especially when the aircraft crashed in the Empire State Building and the impact severed the cables in one perhaps two of the elevators and at this time you still had elevator operators so they plummeted with those elevator operators on board and I believe - no, I believe one operator was on board and the other one was not and the one woman aboard the elevator ended up living as I recall because the cables were coiling up at the bottom of the elevator shaft as it plummeted because it had to fall quite a distance and by the time it hit the bottom it had a sort of cushion going so she was really - she was badly injured but she did survive.

Julie Douglas: And she was crashed in the corner right?

Robert Lamb: Yes.

Julie Douglas: So, when the impact came at the bottom of the elevator too and kind of crumpled in the middle she wasn't affected by that part. So, of course we should say that elevators are really, really safe, the statistics on how safe they are will make you feel much better.

Robert Lamb: Odis will typically show you statistics that argue that they are safer than escalators because even though there are more elevators than escalators the percentage of accidents was apparently higher with escalators. Likewise most of the individuals who are injured or killed aboard elevators are people who are working on them so they're in a heightened state of danger because they're on top of them or they're repairing broken elevators etc.

Julie Douglas: Now, again, this is something that someone like Theresa Christie has to keep in mind when she's developing algorithms and when she programs an elevator system she also uses different weights for the average person by region so for instance the average American is 22 pounds heavier than the average Chinese and she has to account for the way that people arrange themselves in an elevator which turns out is across cultures it turns out that people will arrange themselves into various geometric patterns each time a new passenger gets on an elevator. So, it seems very instinctive so if you have two strangers on an elevator they will gravitate to the back corners, a third person will stand by the door, creating an isosceles triangle until a fourth person and then they'll spread out through all four corners and then so on and so forth as people board.

Robert Lamb: I believe the article they were looking at they used a dice as an example, the position on the dots on any given side of the dice more or less it will [inaudible] how people position themselves on a crowded or less crowded elevator and it's similar to a lot of the rules that govern the bank of urinals in a men's room where is a man gonna stand if there's no one at the urinals, where will the second person to arrive stand, where will the third etc. because no one wants to be too close to the - awkwardly close to the other individual who's taking a leak.

Julie Douglas: I always wondered about that for you guys, that's gotta be very bizarre, someone just - like if you're in there by yourself and someone just cruises up next to you.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, it's a long bank like if it's a bank of - rest stop bank of like six urinals it's a little weird if somebody stands right next to you. Now, here at work we just have two urinals so it's - you're gonna stand next to somebody and hopefully they won't talk to you.

Julie Douglas: I was gonna say is there chit chat.

Robert Lamb: Depends on the individual. Some people seem like they get a little nervous and they have to start talking and it's weird but some people seem to be governed by the no talking while urinating.

Julie Douglas: I think that should be the same set of rules for the elevator, right, don't stand too close and don't chitchat really. Alright Theresa Christie she is one of the premier engineers for Otis mathematicians she has created about 14 pattons and one of the pattons. I really loved called the surfboard feature and I want the codes, this is something that I wish I was a great hacker because I would hack in just to get the codes to elevators because this feature essentially allows you to turn any elevator you're in into an express elevator.

Robert Lamb: Yeah because this situation here is that in Hawaii you have individuals who are taking an elevator but they have a surfboard with them so if they're on board with a surfboard there's not room really for everyone else to get on board with them so they really need a direct line from their floor to the ground floor and this has a lot in common with there are express elevators out there for instance really tall buildings we mention the limits of elevators earlier they can only build an elevator shaft so high and then the physics get involved and they prohibit anything else so you have to - you'll have a landing platform like halfway up the skyscraper and you'll take an express elevator to that and then you wait on elevators to service the higher floors so the idea of an express elevator isn't new but what this is doing is creating a custom express elevator for privileged guests for surfers.

Julie Douglas: Yeah and you know what, this is one little odd tidbit that I wanted to throw out there that we did not talk about and it's a type of elevator system called the destination dispatch in which you key your floor number into a pad in the lobby and the computer then tracks where the cars are and assigns you an elevator bank number.

Robert Lamb: And these are the ones you go in and they have no buttons.

Julie Douglas: No buttons whatsoever so the illusion is just shattered, you have no control, you're in an elevator that you cannot manipulate in any way.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, I believe Palmagarten was the one who compared those elevators to like an elevator in a [inaudible] villains mansion and you're onboard and you're like who's in charge is this going to open up into a pit of sharks or something, I don't know, I'm totally out of control and again it comes back to the idea that our technology - the technology narrative of elevators is giving us power and then steadily taking it away, it's interesting to -

Julie Douglas: How it [inaudible] with whatever else is going on in the world with technology. I wanted to point out that jumping just before impact, this is something you hear about sometimes like oh if an elevator crashes you can jump just before impact and you'll be fine, that's a myth, I want to close it out with that -

Robert Lamb: There's never any reason to jump on an elevator.

Julie Douglas: Never. Right as you said that will mess up the weight sensors and there's two problems with that scenario, you can't jump fast enough to counteract the speed of falling is the first problem and you wouldn't know really when to jump.

Robert Lamb: Exactly. I believe James Fortune was asked about this in Palmagarten's article, he just said well dead is dead. He's kind of a grim individual. He's been in the elevator business a long time at a very straightforward -

Julie Douglas: He's been in so many elevators he has [inaudible] I suppose.

Robert Lamb: So, the future of elevators, this is of course [inaudible] we end up getting here in most of our podcasts, what does this mean for the future, how will this change in the future and a number of these technologies we've talked about that is the future the idea that we're gonna see more and more elevators where we have less and less control, it's all in the computers, there are no buttons, maybe they have some buttons but it's just about giving us a false sense of power.

Also with smaller engines, better cables, sort of a technological increase in small areas that improve and sort of widow down and effect the existing product but as far as rapid changes, as far as really game changing changes it's less certain in that area because instantly when you think of high-tech crazy fantastic elevators you probably think of two things, you probably think of the elevators in the starships in star trek, which can move just about anywhere inside the ship, horizontal, vertically, likewise I think you see those in the recent total recall movie, they're elevator boxes that move up and down and sideways and of course the [inaudible] that can go sideways and diagonal ways and can fly and it's glass and it's the most marvelous thing ever.

Now, they're - Otis did have a design in they were working on it in the late '90's and it was called the Odyssey and they had a prototype for this as well and this is essentially an elevator that can travel horizontal and vertically so instead of having to take that express elevator up and then get off and board some more elevators you would have an elevator that could climb halfway up the building then move horizontally into another elevator shaft and then climb that way so it was a really - I mean everyone there was really excited about it, it was gonna be huge but then the 1997 age and financial crisis hit, there was a rise in cost of electricity and basically the idea was scrapped or at least put on the back shelf to maybe be picked up later on but as Palmagarten points out in his article one of the things is that the elevator is essentially in most people's minds is already perfect, I mean it's not perfect, we want things 30 seconds or less and the faster it gets it's obviously the better but for the most part nobody is demanding these crazy changes.

Julie Douglas: Well, yeah necessity being the mother of inventions so Intel buildings really start to get more horizontal and vertically oriented we probably won't see elevators change that much.

Robert Lamb: I do wanna add though that there are pressurized elevators now in at least one of the high rises in Dubai I believe so you are seeing that technological change take place and that's kind of futuristic, the idea that the elevator is pressurized like a spaceship but for the most part don't expect wonkavator to be available in your area just yet.

Julie Douglas: That's right. Now, if you are a gearhead and you wanna have a bit of a deeper dive into more elevator specifics including hydraulic systems versus say rope systems check out how elevators work by Tom Harris that's on howstuffworks.com, it's great article that will take you through every different aspect mechanically of elevators and I have a little quote to take us out. And if the elevator tries to bring you down go crazy, punch a higher floor, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.

Robert Lamb: Who is that a quote from?

Julie Douglas: Prince Rogers Nelson.

Robert Lamb: Oh, I don't know that song. Song?

Julie Douglas: And if the elevator drives to bring you down, go crazy.

Robert Lamb: Oh, okay.

Julie Douglas: No? All right.

Robert Lamb: I'm sure many listeners will know who you're talking about so that's good, I like the quote, I like the idea.

Julie Douglas: Yeah.

Robert Lamb: So, hey we're gonna skip our [inaudible] since we've been a bit long on this one and goodness we could've probably kept going as we ended up getting so many cool facts about elevators we didn't even get into some of the crazy things people do on elevators, the ice cream story that I think you shared before.

Julie Douglas: Oh yeah.

Robert Lamb: Your father was on an elevator with an ice cream cone.

Julie Douglas: Yeah he was in his office building and the woman next to him said that looks really good and he said it is and she leaned over and took a big bite out of it and then the doors opened and she got off.

Robert Lamb: And then you said you yourself at times danced on elevators?

Julie Douglas: I've done a lot of singing which we probably shouldn't talk about that.

Robert Lamb: Well, we would love to hear our listeners talk about that so if you have some insight about elevators, elevator culture, elevator design, we would love to hear about it, particularly what's the craziest elevator you ever been on be it super high tech or crazy archaic, what's your favorite scene with an elevator from a movie or TV show be it something realistic or just something completely unrealistic and what do you think about your interactions on an elevator, has someone ever taken a bite of your ice cream, have you danced or sing, how do you interact with strangers or pseudo work strangers when you're aboard an elevator, we'd love to hear from everyone about these questions so you can find us on Facebook, you can find us on Tumblr, we are Stuff to Blow Your Mind on both of those and we're also on Twitter where our handle is blowthemind.

Julie Douglas: And if you are the ice cream bandit and you wanna confess you can write us at blowthemind@discovery.com.

Female Speaker: For more on this and thousands of other topics visit howstuffworks.com.

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Duration: 38 minutes