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Posted by on Jun 15, 2017 in Tell Me Why |

How Did the Name Escalator Come About?

How Did the Name Escalator Come About?

Charles Seeberger created the word “escalator” in 1900, to coincide with his device’s debut at the Exposition Universelle. According to his own account, in 1895, his legal counsel advised him to name his new invention, and he then set out to devise a title for it on his own.

As evidenced in Seeberger’s own handwritten documents, archived at the Otis Elevator Company headquarters in Farmington, Connecticut, the inventor consulted “a Latin lexicon” and “adopted as the root of the new word, ‘Scala’; as a prefix, ‘E’ and as a suffix, ‘Tor.’ “His own rough translation of the word thus created was “means of traversing from”, and he intended for the word to be pronounced, (es-CAL-a-tor).

“Escalator” was not a combination of other French or Greek words, and was never a derivative of “elevator” in the original sense, which means “one who raises up, a deliverer” in Latin. Similarly, the root word “scala” does not mean “a flight of steps”, but is defined by Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary as the singular form of the plural noun “scalae“, which denotes any of the following: “a flight of steps or stairs, a staircase; a ladder, [or] a scaling-ladder.”


The alleged intended capitalization of “escalator” is likewise a topic of debate. Seeberger’s trademark application lists the word not only with the “E” but also with all of the letters capitalized (in two different instances), and he specifies that “any other form and character of type may be employed . . . without altering in any essential manner the character of [the] trade-mark.” That his initial specifications are ostensibly inconsistent, and since Otis Elevator Co. advertisements so frequently capitalized all of the letters in the word, suppositions about the “capital ‘e’” are difficult to formulate.

The verb “escalate” originated in 1922, and has two uses, the primary: “to climb or reach by means of an escalator” or “to travel on an escalator”, and the secondary: “to increase or develop by successive stages; spec. to develop from ‘conventional’ warfare into nuclear warfare.” The latter definition was first printed in the Manchester Guardian in 1959, but grew to prominent use during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Escalators are basically just long conveyor belts. They have rotating chains that pull a set of stairs in a constant cycle, creating a moving staircase. With this basic circular motion, they are able to move many people a short distance quickly. Escalators are often featured in areas where many people need to move between two areas quickly but where elevators would be impractical. For example, escalators are commonly found in department stores, shopping malls, hotels, airports, subways, stadiums, and other public buildings.

Nathan Ames patented the first “escalator” in 1859 when he came up with the idea for “revolving stairs.” However, he never made a working model of his concept. Thirty years later, Leamon Souder patented four separate ideas for escalator-like devices. Like Ames, though, Souder never created working models of any of his ideas.

Finally, in 1892, Jesse W. Reno patented the “Endless Conveyor or Elevator.” He also produced the first working escalator — he called it an “inclined elevator” — and installed it along the Old Iron Pier at Coney Island in New York City in 1896.

Soon afterward, George A. Wheeler patented his own ideas for an escalator. He never built working models of any of his ideas, but Charles Seeberger bought his patents and some of Wheeler’s ideas were used in Seeberger’s prototype escalator that was built by the Otis Elevator Company in 1899.

Today, you can find all sorts of different types of escalators in a wide variety of locations. Perhaps one of the most impressive escalator systems in the world is the Central-Mid-Levels escalator system in Hong Kong. It’s the world’s longest outdoor escalator system with a total length of 2,600 feet!

Content for this question contributed by Jill Merisko, resident of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, USA