OTIS: Giving Rise to the Modern City

Jason Goodwin, Author . Ivan R. Dee $27.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-56663-385-7

The skyscraper, that most durable symbol of modernity, would not have been possible without the elevator, and the elevator as we have come to know it is largely the product of the company that Elisha Otis founded in the 1850s. The history of that company is detailed in New York Times journalist Goodwin's (On Foot to the Golden Horn) well-paced book, which weaves business, technological and social history into a seamless and entertaining narrative. Though various sorts of elevators had been in use for many years, it was Elisha Otis's invention of an automatic safety device in the years before the Civil War that made them practical and dependable. Under the more business-savvy leadership of Elisha's son, Charles, the company was able to capitalize on the go-go postwar economy to become dominant in the field, with an unmatched reputation for safety and craftsmanship. Readers of today's business pages will no doubt find much familiar in Goodwin's racy account of the fiercely competitive, volatile and technology-driven economy of the late 19th century, with its dizzying cycles of boom and bust. But the orgy of upward building that took place in the cities of America—not to mention the Eiffel Tower—meant that installing and maintaining elevators was never a business that was down for long. Familiar, too, is the attention that Otis's sometimes not entirely savory methods of preserving dominance in its field attracted from turn of the century trustbusters. Goodwin does not cover up some practices that, endemic at the time, were hardly proud moments. But besides being the history of one company, Goodwin's book (which includes 48 pages of b&w illustrations) is also a thumbnail history of American business, with its mistakes, sins and undeniable triumphs. (Sept.)

Forecast: With the success of Colson Whitehead's elevator novel The Intuitionist, there should be a set of curious readers waiting for a book like this. But if fans of urban history also find the book, strong word-of-mouth sales should be a lock.

Reviewed on: 08/13/2001
Release date: 07/01/2001
Genre: Nonfiction
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