It is a long way from Paris to Dunedin, but even in the 19th century ideas and technology travelled fast.
On 31 March 1889 Gustave Eiffel’s famous tower was officially completed in Paris. At 300 m high (plus a 24-m flagpole), it was the centrepiece of the 1889 Paris Universal Exhibition, and the world’s tallest tower. Not until 1929 was it eclipsed by the 319-m Chrysler Building in New York.
Just 8½ months later a 40-m wooden structure modelled on the Eiffel Tower opened at the 1889–90 New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition in Dunedin.
The magnificent engineering of the Eiffel Tower’s structure has captivated many, but the real secret was its elevators. They saved visitors from climbing the 1710 steps, as well as providing protection from the weather.
The New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition offered the Austral Otis Elevator Company a chance to display its wares in New Zealand. It constructed the 40-m wooden tower, inside which an elevator rose about 30 m. The cost of the tower was estimated at £1200 (equivalent to $225,000 in 2014).
The spacious and nicely decorated elevator cabin was 2.5 m square and able to hold 16 people. It could stop at any of the four landings, ‘each bordered by a wooden fence of sufficient height to prevent accidents’. An Otis steam hoisting engine provided the necessary power to the ‘four strong wire cables’.
The real contribution of Elisha Graves Otis, the company’s founder, was not making the elevators move up and down, but making them stop. Until his 1861 patent, there was no easy way to prevent an elevator plunging downwards at high speed should the ropes or engine fail. At the 1863 New York World’s Fair, Otis demonstrated his safety device that quickly halted a falling elevator cabin. This ensured the safety of the elevators in both the Paris and the Dunedin towers.
In Dunedin, steam provided the motion but electricity the sparkle. The elevator cabin and each of the landings were lit by electricity, and at the top a large electric searchlight lit the sky.
The cost of a ride that provided a view over the Exhibition was sixpence ($4.60 today) for adults and threepence ($2.30) for children.
This entry was contributed by Nigel Isaacs.
Image: New Zealand’s Eiffel tower