How the Otis Elevator Company Cornered the Market by Telling a Single Story

Over 200 books have been written about Elisha Otis, a man widely recognized in American culture as the original inventor of the elevator. Almost every encyclopedia article and history book referencing the elevator describes Elisha Otis’s demonstration at the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations (Crystal Palace, New York City) as a monumental moment in history.

This belief is reinforced by Google-accessible illustrations of Otis’ fabled death-defying exhibition at a conference in New York. Drawings portray large crowds of people reacting with surprise at the effectiveness of his patented safety mechanism, after he cuts the cord suspending his platform.

With Elisha Otis’s role in history thus enshrined in our minds, it may come as a shock that these drawings were essentially corporate propaganda, created almost 60 years after Otis passed away. The entire narrative describing Elisha Otis as the founder of the modern elevator was constructed by his sons in 1911, who used the story to establish one of the largest monopolies in history.

The real story

Certainly historical accounts of Elisha Otis’s life are not completely fake: he did receive a patent for his safety elevator, and he did give a demonstration at the Crystal Palace in New York. The grander story begins to unravel when we realize that Otis only received a patent for his specific safety device, and it was received just 3 months before his death.

Elisha Otis was one of several men working on elevator inventions during the early 1800’s, and his was not considered the best — by a long shot

Historian Andreas Bernard found that at least 6 additional competitors were touring science and invention fairs demonstrating their own versions of the elevator the year Otis demonstrated his. Actual attendance of the Otis demonstration was very low compared to similar demonstrations, and received no attention from the press.*

While Otis won the contract for one of the first passenger elevator installations (Haughwout Store 1857), it did not resemble the enclosed elevators we use today, and it was removed soon after installation as customers refused to use it.

A different inventor with a similar name, Otis Tufts, patented the first truly viable passenger elevator. Called the “Vertical Screw Elevator,” it was the first to have a completely enclosed cab, was deemed the safest elevator of its time, and remained in use from 1859 through the 1870’s. Tufts was heralded by numerous scientific and business publications as one of the most brilliant inventors of his time. If any man could accurately be described as the father of the modern elevator, it would be Mr. Tufts.

Why the discrepancy?

Why is it then that we attribute so much credit to Elisha Otis, and so little to Otis Tufts?

Charles and Norton, Elisha’s sons, built their own elevator company years after their father’s death: Otis Brothers and Company. While their product wasn’t necessarily the best, their business strategy was. The brothers acquired all 14 of their major competitors, establishing a de facto monopoly.

In 1911, the brothers faced a massive marketing problem: how does a company unite 14 brands under one name?

Their solution was to rewrite history, positioning themselves as the “original” elevator creator. The brothers renamed their company The Otis Elevator Company, after their father’s legacy. Charles launched a massive public relations campaign to establish a new historical narrative of the invention of the elevator. His narrative positioned Elisha Otis as a creative genius, and downplayed the importance of competitors. Charles commissioned the now famous drawing of Elisha Otis’s demonstration, complete with a fictional audience reacting in amazement.

Not only were the Otis brothers tremendously successful at changing the way people recalled history, but they created a powerful brand with significant authority and trust. By describing their company as the “original” inventor of the elevator, people were far more inclined to accept and respect their dominance in the market.

Takeaways

The Otis Elevator story demonstrates how much power an effective brand narrative can have. Even if you can’t position your company as the “original” inventor of a product, you can provide customers a story that helps them remember you, or that lends credibility to your service.

At Boone Group, we recognize that every company has a story worth telling. With a bit of research and the right presentation, a compelling story might be all that’s needed to establish dominance in your field.

*Bernard, Andreas. Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator. New York: NYU Press, 2014.

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