Electric Stair-Climbers and Mobility in the Nineteenth Century
In his book on machines and modernity in India, historian David Arnold rightly points out that ‘big technologies’ like the telegraph and the railways have received more attention from scholars than smaller, ‘everyday technologies’ like the typewriter, the bicycle, the sewing-machine and the rice mill. Following the trajectory of these four technological devices in India, Arnold makes some pertinent comments about the nature of colonial power and its ability to control the use of technology, the relationship between technology and well-being and the myriad ways in which these modern contrivances were incorporated into the daily routines of Indians of diverse social backgrounds.
I am always reminded of Arnold’s book when flipping through the pages of technical and more general periodicals from the nineteenth century, marvelling at the great variety of technological innovations put forward by the engineering minds of the day. One example I have recently stumbled upon is the ‘electric stair-climber’ or the monte-escalier, as it was known in French: a stairlift devised by the civil engineer J. Alain Amiot, which was among the many ‘novelties’ exhibited in the Gallery of Machines at the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1889. Describing the invention, Le Génie Civil highlighted the relevance of this 'small technology' to everyday life: ‘In addition to the great industrial inventions, there are numerous other, of a more modest type, which are no less important to our daily needs and which provide us with a host of services whose necessity we have come to appreciate more every day’.
Interior view of the Gallery of Machines, Exposition Universelle, 1889, Paris (Source: Library of Congress)
Elevators were already familiar to Parisians at the time when the monte-escalier began to vie for the attention of the public. They were particularly useful in ‘modern’, multi-storied buildings, where residents and visitors who used them were spared the ‘fatigue of climbing of stairs’. Le Génie Civil even claimed that the use of elevators was connected to a rise in preference for upper-story apartments, where air was ‘healthier and the dust and noise of the street below could not reach so easily’.
The electric stair-climber resembled the elevator in many respects and press accounts of Amiot’s invention were careful to emphasize the fact that the new technology was by no means intended to compete with the former, but was much less ambitious in scope. The stair-climber was designed for use in buildings where the transport of persons was limited, such as private residences, or where it could complement the use of the elevator, for example in hotels. Unlike the elevator, which could transport people from the ground floor to the top of the building, the stair-climber was envisaged for use between floors, with each climber functioning independently from the ones on the other floors. Also unlike the elevator, a stair-climber could only be used to transport one person at a time, either standing or seated. Among its advantages were a lower price and the compact design: much like contemporary stairlifts, Amiot’s monte-escalier could be folded when not in use and it only occupied approximately 30 centimetres of the total width of the stairs, thus enabling people to pass by each other without exposing themselves to the danger of accidents.
Another advantage was the fact that stair-climbers could be easily installed in older buildings that did not have enough space to accommodate the bulky cage of elevators. Unlike this more elaborate contrivance, a stair-climber consisted of only three parts: a ‘guide’ made of two parallel flat iron rods which were supported on the balustrade, a movable platform and a motor. Although the motor could be either electric or hydraulic, like in the case of elevators, by this time there was a visible move towards the use of the former type of device. As one press report pointed out, in the case of elevators, this trend could be traced back to the International Exhibition of Electricity held in Paris in 1881, when proposals were made for the replacement of hydraulic engines with electric ones on elevators.
One intriguing aspect of these early French reports about the monte-escalier is that they make no mention of the potential use of this innovation to assist the mobility of elderly or disabled people. Indeed, it is unclear from the available evidence whether Amiot had envisaged such a field of use. But as news of his invention spread to other corners of the globe via the medium of newspapers and magazines, people began to speculate that the device could also be useful to those afflicted by mobility problems. Across the Atlantic, the editor of the Manufacturer and Builder of New York ended his description of the ‘electric stair-climber’ by anticipating that, ‘The increasing facilities for employing the electric current for power, should render a device of this kind practicable on the score of cost, and it will doubtless prove to be useful and popular in many situations. It would be particularly valuable for invalid members of a household.’ This prediction proved true, as the advertisement below, dating from 1933, also demonstrates. Unlike the earlier French models, the ‘electric passenger lift for the home’ designed by the Inclinator Company of America was aimed specifically at “all who are afflicted with ‘polio’, impaired heart action, arthritis, and the infirmities of age. Where physical disabilities make stair-climbing distressing or tiresome these modern conveniences are a necessity, permitting the invalid to avoid painful and fatiguing efforts.” The design of the American stairlift was similar to that of its predecessor and, indeed, to contemporary stairlifts that have become indispensable in the care of the elderly and the disabled.