Be It Known, I invented Revolving Stairs

“To all whom it may concern:

Be it known that I, Nathan Ames, of Saugus, in the county of Essex and Commonwealth of Massachusetts, have invented a new and useful Improvement in Stairs, which I call Revolving Stairs; and I do hereby declare that the following is a full, clear, and exact description of the construction and operation of the same…”

That is Nathan Ames applying for a patent for what was essentially the modern-day escalator. Who is Nathan Ames you ask? Read on.


Photo credit to

Nathan Ames was born on November 17, 1826, in Roxbury, New Hampshire, U.S.A., and worked as a patent solicitor. He received his education at Phillips Academy Preparatory High School and later at Harvard University. He patented several additional machines outside the vertical-transportation industry, and even had a book of poetry, Pirate’s Glen and Dungeon Rock, published in 1853.

United States Patent No. 25076 was granted on August 9, 1859 – 156 years ago this week! – for his “Revolving Stairs”. As you can see in the images above, Ames created two ‘arrangement’ possibilities. The first is what he calls a “double parallel arrangement” and the second, a “triangular arrangement.”

If you keep looking at the images, I hope you’ll notice one major design flaw with the “triangular arrangement” (Fig. 3).
Because the entire system is a continuous triangle, it would require passengers to have skills in coordination, timing and agility. When they reach the top they must jump sideways; otherwise, they’ll just ride back down to where they started. It was dangerous and impractical.

Just what was he thinking with these “Revolving Stairs”? Let’s look at some more excerpts from his original letter requesting the patent:

“The object of the invention is to enable persons to ascend and descend from one story of a building to another, without exerting any muscular strength…”

That ‘object’ seems pretty obvious to us today, but it was totally revolutionary at the time. He also had some grand visions for his Revolving Stairs that make those of us in the industry cringe:

“When not in motion, it is obvious that my stairs are as convenient as the stairs in common use, and may be employed in every instance as a substitute. It is also evident that a person may, if he chooses, walk-upon the stairs while they are in motion, and thereby ascend, or descend, as the case may be, with double speed.”

And then there is this:

“In private dwellings, where the stairs would be revolved only occasionally, they might be operated by hand power, or by a weight applied to the stairs through any suitable mechanism. In private residences, they would prove valuable in assisting the sick, aged…. from story to story; they would also prove a luxury to those that are active and in health, especially if the house be large. Thus by rendering the upper stories of large buildings comparatively easy of access, their value will be greatly enhanced especially in large and densely populated cities…”

More like delusions, not visions. But remember, this was 1859!

First of all, escalators should never be used as a substitute for stairs, even while they are working, as they are not the correct height for normal walking. According to the Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation’s A Safe Ride®, this is one of the most popular myths when it comes to escalators.

Second, who has an escalator in their home?

If Ames could see us now!

Escalators have certainly come a long way since Ames’ idea. Photo by Jean Lim Sock Koon.

Mr. Ames never produced a working model for his “Revolving Stairs” and was never heard from again, despite his patent being granted. He died August 17, 1865, in Massachusetts. His idea, however, was obviously (and thankfully) never lost. Fast-foward about 30 years when three separate patents for “moving stairways” were granted to Jessi Reno (1891), George H. Wheeler (1892) and Charles D. Seeberger (1898). These patents were for the much needed improvements to the idea, and would eventually lead to working models.

Ames was certainly ahead of his time. He saw a future that was literally looking up:

“…and buildings may be constructed much higher than heretofore, as the previous objections to such structures will be obviated.”

"Higher than heretofore"

“Looking up” at Tall Buildings in Chicago, Illinois, USA. Photo by Mohammed Kothambawala, Kantar Operations

On a completely separate note, I think I will now start all my e-mails with, “Be it known.”

Thanks for reading,


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