It’s BLACK HISTORY MONTH, and we are continuing to CELEBRATE the achievements and contributions African-Americans have made to SOCIETY as we know it. So let’s talk about Alexander Miles.
Alexander Miles was an African-American inventor who was best known for being awarded a patent for an automatically opening and closing elevator door design in 1887. Contrary to many sources, Miles was not the original inventor of this device. In 1874, 13 years before Miles’ patent was awarded, John W. Meaker was awarded U.S. Patent 147,853 for the invention of the first automatic elevator door system.
“To whom it may concern. –
Be it known that I, ALEXANDER MILES, a citizen of the United States, residing at Duluth, in the county of St. Louis and State of Minnesota, have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Elevators, of which the following is a specification.”
Alexander Miles was born in 1838 Duluth, Minnesota. He moved to Waukesha, Wisconsin where he earned a living as a barber in the 1860s. After a move to Winona, Minnesota in 1870, he met his wife, Candace J. Dunlap, a white woman born in New York City in 1834. Together they had a daughter named Grace who was born in April 1879. Shortly after her birth, the family relocated to Duluth, Minnesota.
While in Duluth, Alexander operated a barbershop in the four-story St. Louis Hotel and purchased a real estate office. His wife found work as a dress maker. Miles became the first black member of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce. In 1884, Miles built a three-story brownstone building at 19 West Superior Street in Duluth. This area became known as the Miles Block. It was at this time that Miles was inspired to work on elevator door mechanisms.
While riding in an elevator in with his young daughter, Alexander Miles saw the risk associated with an elevator shaft door carelessly left ajar. This led him to draft his design for automatically opening and closing elevator doors and apply for a patent. When the elevator would arrive or depart from a given floor, the doors would move automatically. Previously, the opening and closing of the doors of both the shaft and the elevator had to be completed manually by either the elevator operator or by passengers, contributing greatly to the hazards of operating an elevator.
Miles attached a flexible belt to the elevator cage, and when the belt came into contact with drums positioned along the elevator shaft just above and below the floors, it allowed the elevator shaft doors to operate at the appropriate times. The elevator doors themselves were automated through a series of levers and rollers.
Miles’ patent describes how the elevator cabin doors open and close through a series of levers and rollers. When the elevator came to stop at a floor, a flexible belt attached to the cabin, with its ends running over drums at the top and bottom of the shaft, would open the shaft doors. He describes the goals of his invention as:
“First, to provide mechanisms operating automatically to close the shaft openings above and below the elevator-cage, and so preclude the possibility of danger by reason of such openings being left unclosed through negligence; and, second, devices operating automatically by the movement of the cage to open and close the cage-doors when set by an operator to be in engagement at any desired floor.”
Before working on elevator engineering, Miles experimented with the creation of hair products. The influence of his elevator patent is still seen in modern designs, since the automatic opening and closing of elevator and elevator shaft doors is a standard feature.
Miles was recognized for his work when he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007. The value of his work is evident today every time an elevator’s doors open and you step into or out of the cabin. The automatic opening and closing doors creates a sense of mystery for elevator passengers. His invention has contributed to the creation of this aura as well as the convenience and safety of people movers in tall buildings.