Elevator Women

by Hanno van der Bijl

This blog post briefly (and imperfectly) outlines the work and lives of three elevator women who have made, or continue to make, valuable contributions to the elevator industry. Their example can help curb the misogyny that continues to be a problem to varying degrees throughout the world, and inspire women to be brave in pursuing their vocational pursuits.

The Part-Time Inventor


Harriet Ruth Brisbane Tracy was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1834. Her father, William Brisbane moved the family to New England before the Civil War. Tracy married Cadwallader Colden Tracy in 1860, and lived in New York during the 1860s-1890s. She and her family moved to Paris and then on to London, where she lived until she died in 1918.

Tracy’s obituary, written by her son-in-law, credits her with no less than 11 patents for inventions involving elevators, sewing machine and folding beds. We have a letter recognizing her elevator design, with features from her 1882 and 1889 patents and automatic hatchway guards, that was on display at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The letter was signed by five renowned engineers of the time: Lewis C. Grover, manager, Colt Firearms Company; John Thomason, inventor; William F. Durfee, sewing machine expert; and Frederick R. Hutton, professor of the Columbia School of Mines.

The Business Owner

Marie MacDonald was instrumental in forming what would become the first National Association of Women in Construction chapter on the U.S. West Coast in the 1950s. She was the first woman in California to receive an elevator contractor’s license in 1958, and she founded the elevator inspection firm, McDonald Elevator Co., in 1977. She has been recognized as the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce’s 1988 Entrepreneur of the Year, and she received the National Association of Elevator Contractors (NAEC) William C. Sturgeon Distinguished Service Award in 2001.


Before she became Mrs. Marie MacDonald, she became involved in the elevator industry when her father, Sherman Camp, owner of Dwan Elevator Co., asked her to install a new bookkeeping system at the family business. She later became office manager, and this led to an opportunity to sell the company’s products, such as the Hillavator, a hill-climbing system her father invented (ELEVATOR WORLD, October 1959). She earned QEI certification through NAESA International in 1976. After her father sold the company, she started her own — McDonald Elevator Co. — in August 1977. She sold the company after her husband, John McDonald, passed away in 1989. She then worked for Pacific Access, Contractors in Redwood City until 2013, when she retired. Pacific Access President Kurt Frietzche said: “As one of the first women to own and operate a business in this field, she showed great tenacity and gumption.” She remains active in organizations like the Vertical Initiative for Elevator Escalator Women (VIEEW).

The Otis Fellow

In 2006, Theresa Muenkel Christy, became the first woman to be named an Otis fellow. An ELEVATOR WORLD interview, published in March 2013, notes, “She is a named inventor of 14 patents (with several others pending).” In 2011, she was a finalist for the Connecticut Women of Innovation Award.


In 1986, she started her career as a software engineer at Otis simply because she wanted a job in Connecticut. She became more interested in the industry when she started working with the elevator dispatching group. She had double majored in Mathematics and Economics at Wellesley, Massachusetts in 1979, and then received an MBA from Babson College in 1987 after studying as a night student. Due to her interest in elevator dispatching, she also pursued and was awarded an MA in Mathematics/Statistics at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain in 2002. “During my studies at CCSU,” says Christy, “I was known as ‘the elevator lady’ because many of my projects had to do with elevator issues.”

Christy maintains that the biggest challenge in her career is “prioritizing all the work that comes my way….I have learned to be flexible enough to change direction and switch back and forth between multiple activities.” The strengths she brings to the table are her enjoyment of the subject matter, the relevant educational background, and her excellent communication skills, which she says “is important to my role at Otis, because I am frequently in training or customer situations where I am trying to explain something most people don’t think much about.” The most rewarding parts of her career, she says, are working on technical problems and working with customers.


Despite the highly technical nature of her work, she has kept her feet on the ground. During a work trip to New York City, she saw the impact on society that the elevator has: “I quickly learned that residents of NYC are very elevator savvy, and that elevators are a very real part of their lives — almost, but not quite, the way automobiles are to those of us living in the suburbs.” Another reality check, as it were, is that her husband of more than 30 years has sickle-cell disease: “This has added to the complexity of our lives but has also served as a frequent reminder of what’s really important in life.”

She continues to look forward to the future by setting goals. She says, “I want to continue influencing the way the industry looks at elevator metrics, both what they mean and what they don’t mean. I want to continue working in elevator dispatching as part of the team that develops world-class Otis dispatching products.”

Tracy, MacDonald and Christy — just three of many women in the elevator industry — are great examples to both women and men of the joy and power of service and success. In their respective arenas, they saw a need and faithfully served the interests of others. They bloomed where they were planted.

Dr. Lee Gray, “The Part-Time Inventor and the Industrialist”, Elevator World, February 2004, pp. 104-107.
Elizabeth Pate, “Otis Fellow Theresa Muenkel Christy Tells EW about Her Role in the Industry,” Elevator World, March 2013, pp. 50-53.
Kaija Wilkinson, “Having a Say: Marie MacDonald looks back on blazing a path for fellow women in the elevator industry.” Elevator World, May 2014, pp. 32-36.

Of Elevators and Cows: Finland’s Top Billionaire

Antti Herlin, Finland’s biggest billionaire, stands out on Forbes’ 2015 Top Billionaire List because he is no ordinary guy. His source of wealth is not something mundane, such as real estate or the stock market, but the ever-more-sexy vertical-transportation industry. As chairman of KONE, Herlin is credited with growing the company through calculated acquisitions and technological innovation, particularly during his tenure as CEO from 1996-2006. Herlin’s grandfather bought KONE shares in 1924, and Herlin’s father changed his will to pass the reins to Herlin — rather than his siblings — upon seeing his skill at growing the company. With assets valued at US$3.6 billion, the 58-year-old chairman is not only involved in the elevator business, but also is a breeder of champion Hereford beef, raised on the family farm at Thorsvik Manor in Kirkkonummi, Finland.

The Herlin family's champion Hereford cattle graze in the pasture on the farm at Thorsvik Manor.

The Herlin family’s champion Hereford cattle graze in the pasture on the farm at Thorsvik Manor.



UFO – Unidentified Floating Object

As you probably know, our offices here at Elevator World, Inc. are located in beautiful Mobile, Ala., right on the Gulf. Mobile is a port city which means there is always something interesting going on in the water. Until recently Mobile was a home port for Carnival Cruise ships. Watching these massive ships go up and down the coast, especially at night, was always an awesome sight. But even without the cruise liners, you can still observe huge barges full of cargo, tugboats and occasionally the strange and curious unidentified ‘floating’ object. Take for example the photos below:




This caused quite a stir of confusion among us Mobilians. It’s absolutely massive and was visible from several points coming in to and going out of the downtown area. “So what is it?” we all asked. Well al.com – a news source covering the local area – had the same question and set out to find the answer.

It is the VB 10,000 – the largest lift vessel ever built in the United States – manufactured by Versabar. Check out their website for more information. In technical terms it is a “barge mounted, duel-truss system with the ability to perform single-piece topside retrievals.” Cassie Fambro with al.com puts it into layman’s terms for us as “a really big piece of equipment that can pick up really, really heavy stuff.” How heavy you ask? According to Versabar’s website 7,500 tons! Pretty cool.

It is visiting the Port City for some repair work. This photo below by Sharon Steinmann shows the VB 10,000 at the docks. It is scheduled to leave on March 21.


Here is a great photo from the company’s website showing it in action. It also gives you an idea of just how massive this lift is!

Just think of what Versabar could build if they ever decided to enter the freight or cargo elevator market.

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 13.25.53

Thanks for reading,

– Caleb


Retired Escalator Worker: Failing to Follow Rules Leads to Missing Shoes, Clothes and Worse

Failing to follow the rules while riding an escalator can have, at least, embarrassing, and, at worst, deadly results, a retired maintenance worker told Australian newspaper the Daily Telegraph recently. During his nearly 20 years in the business, he said he’s seen instances where women’s dresses were ripped off and where children’s shoes — such as rubber-soled Crocs — got caught. Such accidents are simple to avoid, he says, by following basic safety rules such as standing inside steps’ yellow lines, holding onto railings, paying attention, not running or playing on escalators, not taking strollers or scooters on them and avoiding riding if one is intoxicated. Though sometimes humorous, elevator/escalator safety is no laughing matter. It is a topic members of the Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation are exploring deeply during their annual General Membership Meeting this week in Tampa. 

The passenger to whom this shoe belongs  is fortunate that his or her shoe is the only thing he or she lost. Image courtesy of Reddit.

The passenger to whom this shoe belongs is fortunate that his or her shoe is the only thing he or she lost. Image courtesy of Reddit.


Escalator Puzzle

We all know Mondays can be slow and difficult, especially on these cold wintry days. So, if you need a break to ease the stress of your busy day, just click the below image. You will be directed to a site that will allow you to virtually put together a 150-piece jigsaw puzzle of an amazing escalator. Have a great Monday and enjoy! Note: It is not as easy as you might think!



Dizzying Heights: PBS “Super Skyscrapers” Explores Engineering, Environmental Challenges of Building World’s Tallest

Shanghai Tower at night in on December 4, 2014.  Photo by TheDarkCurrent

Shanghai Tower at night on December 4, 2014. Photo by TheDarkCurrent

A new PBS series, Super Skyscrapers, explores the mind-boggling engineering and environmental challenges of building supertall buildings such as One World Trade Center and the Shanghai Tower. The shows provide an in-depth look at construction workers going above and beyond to deliver their projects safely and on-time, which frequently involves walking or dangling thousands of feet above ground.  The elevator industry is no stranger to these impressive buildings, with OEMs such as ThyssenKrupp Elevator (One World Trade Center) and Mitsubishi Electric (Shanghai Tower) custom-designing amazing vertical-transportation systems for these amazing buildings.



The Man Behind the Closing Doors

by Hanno van der Bijl


Like a lot of other automated machines today, we take the automatic opening and closing of elevator doors for granted. When the elevator was first invented in the mid-19th century, the elevator operator or the passengers themselves had to manually close the doors. The door to the elevator shaft also had to be closed manually. You have probably seen movies where well-groomed elevator operators open and close sliding doors for wealthy patrons. But life in tall buildings was not always that idyllic. Elevator and shaft doors were left open. Unsuspecting passengers would step into the shaft and fall down a number of stories, sometimes to their death.

One of the men who made a significant contribution to the automation of elevator doors and the safety of buildings was Alexander Miles, an African-American inventor. On October 11, 1887, he was awarded U.S. Patent 371,207 for an improved mechanism for opening and closing the doors to the shaft and the elevator:

“To whom it may concern. –
Be it known that I, ALEXANDER MILES, a citizen of the United States, residing at Duluth, in the county of St. Louis and State of Minnesota, have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Elevators, of which the following is a specification.”

From Miles’ patent: “Figure 1 is a side elevation of an elevator shaft and cage containing my improvements. Fig. 2 is a front elevation of the same.”

Miles’ patent describes how the elevator cabin doors open and close through a series of levers and rollers. When the elevator came to stop at a floor, a flexible belt attached to the cabin, with its ends running over drums at the top and bottom of the shaft, would open the shaft doors. He describes the goals of his invention as:

“First, to provide mechanisms operating automatically to close the shaft openings above and below the elevator-cage, and so preclude the possibility of danger by reason of such openings being left unclosed through negligence; and, second, devices operating automatically by the movement of the cage to open and close the cage-doors when set by an operator to be in engagement at any desired floor.”


From Miles’ patent: “Fig. 3 is a detached view of one of the cage-doors and its operating devices. Fig. 4 is a detail of the devices for sliding the roller-wheels carried by the levers to and from positions to be engaged in the grooves. Fig. 5 is a cross-section of one of the uprights of the shaft, showing the beltway and a portion of one of the belt cross-strips in it. Fig. 7 is a top view of the sliding doors and their tracks.”

Miles was born in Ohio on May 18, 1838. After working in Waukesha, Wisconsin as a barber, he moved to Duluth, Minnesota where he met his wife, Mrs. Candance J. (Shedd) Dunlap, a widow with two children. In 1876, their daughter, Grace, was born. Eleven years later, when he was 49 years old, he was awarded the patent for his elevator invention. Two years later in 1889, he moved his family to Chicago where he worked as a laborer according to the city directories. By the next year, the directories listed him as an insurance agent. In 1903, he moved his family to Seattle where he worked in a hotel as a barber. He passed away on May 7, 1918.

Miles was recognized for his work when he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007. The value of his work is evident today every time an elevator’s doors open and you step into or out of the cabin. The automatic opening and closing doors creates a sense of mystery for elevator passengers. His invention has contributed to the creation of this aura as well as the convenience and safety of people movers in tall buildings.


From Miles’ patent: “Fig. 6 is a perspective view of an elevator shaft and cage provided with the improvements, but having a single cage-door.”


What Would You Do?

Imagine this: you are riding an escalator packed with people and it suddenly speeds up. Then, without warning, it abruptly stops! People go tumbling down the escalator into a massive pile up that causes many injuries. This is a real situation that has happened before. Watching this video, produced by National Geographic, will give you the best option for avoiding disaster and potential injury in an instance such as this. I am happy to announce that your author choose the correct option. Did you?


The Bicycle-Powered Elevator — An Update

More than a year after his initial video showcasing his bicycle-powered treehouse elevator, Ethan Schlussler has new footage featuring “Version 1.5″ of the ingenious contraption. He says that, in addition to modifications to the elevator system, “the exterior of [his] tree house is now finished.” For more on Schlussler’s project or to contact him, visit his YouTube channel.


Have you ever noticed?

One of my favorite pastimes is reading — reading on all sorts of topics and in different formats, as I have many interests. A longtime favorite has been the web comic XKCD by Randall Munroe (I’m actually currently reading his book What If? – Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions)

Out of curiosity, I searched the archive for something relevant to the elevator industry and once again XKCD did not disappoint and presents us with comic #897: Elevator Inspection


Even governmental elevator inspectors get bored halfway through asking where the building office is


There is more to his comics than meets the eye however; and it’s in the form of ‘hidden text’ (or ‘image title’). Just put your cursor over the image and it will appear. The title text for this particular comic reads:

“Even governmental elevator inspectors get bored halfway through asking where the building office is”

This will probably cause you to pay a little closer attention the next time you step into the elevator – whether it is at your apartment complex or work place. The countless reasons why building owners should pay to have their elevators inspected and maintained regularly can be summed up into one word: SAFETY

So: Have you ever noticed an out of date certificate or a sign stating something similar to the comic above? This comic is a few years old (2011) but this issue is still ever present in the U.S. Just as recently as November 2014, Massachusetts was experiencing a major backlog of inspections. Most of the owners however did apply for and pay the inspection fee only to have it delayed due to the government division overseeing the inspections. Most. Several did not apply. This obviously presents several problems and creates potential for disaster.

Take a closer look on your next ride and don’t be afraid to say something or grab your fellow riders to go on a journey to find the certificate!