I don’t think that I’m alone in the fact that a broken elevator is TERRIFYING. Like, seriously, have any of you ever been on a shaky ass elevator?? You feel like it’s about to be ALL over. This is with elevators that have been made relatively recently! Did you know that elevators had to be manned by the passengers at first? Yep, you would have to open the door, close the door, and make sure the door to the elevator shaft was closed as well. If that didn’t happen, other passengers… let’s just say that they would be going for a pretty long fall. This isn’t the safest way to go up and down buildings, so there was a man who decided to make automatic doors. A Black man, by the name of Alexander Miles.
To keep it real, there is not a lot on the youth of Alexander Miles. He was born in 1838, and there has been some disputes on where he was born. Some say Ohio, while others say Duluth, Minnesota; where he was living while coming up with the invention. His parents were named Michael Miles and Mary Pompy.
In the 1860s, Miles moved to Wisconsin and worked as a barber where he started experimenting with creating hair products. After moving back to Minnesota in 1870, he met his wife, a white woman by the name of Candace J. Dunlap. They had a daughter named Grace in 1879, and relocated back to Duluth.
Miles and his wife found work, as Miles ran a barbershop and Candace became a dressmaker. Miles’ barbershop was in the four-story St. Louis Hotel, and he purchased a real estate office. Let’s acknowledge this: it is around 1880, and this man purchased a real estate office. That is excellent. Even though it was in the north, I will ALWAYS praise Black people achieving big things like that in the 19th century. As time passed, Miles made more achievements. He became the first Black member of Duluth’s Chamber of Commerce, and he even built a three-story brownstone building that is known as Miles Block. With a three-story building, you know what you might want? Elevators.
The Big Invention.
Remember when I told you that closing the door to the elevator shaft was important? Well, Miles felt the exact same way, as he was on one with his daughter and that shaft door was open. Almost immediately after, Miles started drafting up blueprints for automatic elevator doors.
Now, someone else had the patent for elevators first (John W. Meaker), but Miles still applied for a patent. Miles’ elevator was going to have those automatic doors by attaching a flexible belt to the cage of the elevator. Once it came in contact with the drums that were above and below the floors, the elevator shaft doors were able to operate at appropriate times. Through some levers and rollers, the elevator doors would open and close on their own. Miles’ model is still used in modern designs of elevators, and all most of us have ever known are automatic doors in and on elevators.
Final Days and Impact.
Miles and his family moved to Chicago around 1900, where he created an insurance agency. The agency’s goal was to eliminate the discriminatory treatment of blacks. “Insurance companies persist in holding out discriminative rates to these colored people..” stated by Miles. Near the end of his life, Miles was believed to be the “wealthiest colored man in the Northwest.” After 1905, Miles died, but his legacy was still recognized as he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007.
Alexander Miles is an innovator that you don’t hear about too often. For a man who changed something that we use so frequently, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the first time you’ve heard of him! Hopefully, I can do him justice by showing you how he changed the elevator so we wouldn’t have to stress (or die) closing the doors manually. Alexander Miles, your legacy will not be forgotten!
Photo creds: Duluth Public Library
BHA. (2021). Alexander Miles: African American Inventors. Retrieved from My Black History: http://www.myblackhistory.net/Alexander_Miles.htm
National Inventors Hall of Fame. (2021). NIHF Inductee Alexander Miles. Retrieved from National Inventors Hall of Fame: https://www.invent.org/inductees/alexander-miles
Scholastic Teacher’s Activity Guide. (2021). Alexander Miles | Famous African American Inventors. Retrieved from Scholastic Teacher’s Activity Guide: http://teacher.scholastic.com/activities/bhistory/inventors/miles.htm
White, D. (2018, January 4). Alexander Miles (1838-1918). Retrieved from Black Past: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/miles-alexander-1838-1918/