You can thank Black inventor Alexander Miles for making elevators safe

by Deon Osborne, Associate Editor
Published: Last Updated on
black inventors alexander miles
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A man who rose up as a Black inventor in the late 1800s patented technology that still keeps elevator passengers from falling today.

Making history in 1887, Alexander Miles invented elevator doors that could open and close automatically. The feature remains a standard on modern-day elevators, showcasing the immense impact a Black inventor has had on the U.S. and the world.

From the World Trade Center in New York City, to the Shanghai Tower in China, and even the Burj Al Alam Skyscraper in Dubai, elevator passengers experience a much safer journey to their indoor destinations thanks to Miles.

Alexander Miles Black inventors

From barber to the Chamber of Commerce

Born in May 18, 1838 in Circleville, Ohio, Alexander Miles eventually moved to Waukesha, Wisconsin, earning a living as a barber during the 1860s, according to a report from MIT. A decade later, with a wife and child, Miles moved to Duluth, Minnesota, where his recognition would skyrocket higher than any elevator.

A master with the clippers, Miles opened up a barber office in a four-story hotel and even began to dabble in real estate, thanks to his funds from cutting hair. The community of Duluth recognized his business acumen while he was still alive, elevating him to become the first Black man to join the Duluth Chamber of Commerce.

High on success, Alexander Miles went on to build a three-story brownstone building in what became a historic area of the city. It was at his large building where he noticed the safety hazard of operating elevators without automatic doors. During that time, many accidental deaths occurred due to manual doors that operators would sometimes forget to close. The mistakes resulted in people literally falling to their deaths.

Saving lives with his invention

Determined to solve the problem and save lives, Miles patented technology that used flexible belts combined with levers and rollers to automate the doors. He was granted a patent for his invention on Oct. 11, 1887.

Today, roughly 30 deaths caused by elevators still occur each year, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Yet, they remain a fraction of the deaths that could occur without Alexander Miles’ automated technology.

“I think it is time that the nation should awaken to the fact that the negro is a citizen and not a pest,” Miles said in 1896.

Eventually, Miles and his family moved to Seattle, Washington. There, he became known as the wealthiest Black person in the Pacific Northwest area, thanks in large part to income from his invention. In 2007, the problem-solving trailblazer was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

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