I came across a fabulous article in the New Yorker yesterday about elevators. I had no idea the topic could be so interesting, but it really was. I highly recommend reading it. The article is long, but is very readable and fascinating.
Don't believe me that elevators are interesting? Here are some article highlights:
*Elevator designers study human behavior for use in their designs. For example, studies have shown exactly how close together people are willing to stand in an elevator (this differs by culture and gender) and how long people are willing to wait for an elevator before getting upset (less than 30 seconds). Also, the widespread fear of elevators is taken into account. The emergency and door-close buttons in most elevators do not even work (technically, the emergency button does work, but you have to have a fire department key to use it), but they are left in the modern designs because it makes people feel less powerless.
*Some modern elevators don't have any buttons at all. Instead, you key your desired destination into a computer console in the lobby, then the car arrives and takes you where you want to go. Elevator designers thought this would be a great way to streamline elevators, particularly because it solves the problem of people pushing all the buttons and slowing down the whole processes. Unfortunately, most people absolutely hate the buttonless elevators. We prefer to feel like we have some control over where we are going and what is going on.
*Elevators actually have a very good track record as far as safety goes. An average of 26 people die in elevator-related deaths each year in the US, but nearly all of those are due to human stupidity, not elevator malfunction. In traction elevators, each individual elevator car is held up by six or eight cables. Each cable must be able to carry the weight of the entire car on its own, plus 25% more weight as well. In addition, elevators have a brake system that kicks in if the elevator's speed goes over a certain point (as it would in the event of a free-fall). The brake system slows the car quickly but not immediately, so that the elevator riders aren't too jolted by the stop.
*Contrary to what you see in the movies, you cannot climb out the hatch on the ceiling of the elevator. All elevators have these hatches, however, by law they are padlocked from the outside. It has been determined that, regardless of the situation, the safest place for people in an elevator shaft is inside the elevator, not out in the shaft. Security personnel can unlock the hatch and let people out in a rescue effort, but the hatch cannot be opened from the inside.
*Nicholas White of New York City holds the record for the longest amount of time stuck in an elevator. In October 1999, He was returning to his office after a quick smoke break when his elevator stopped inexplicably between floors. He rang the emergency bell, but no one heard it. He was stuck there for 41 hours before he was noticed on the security cameras, even though they had been recording him the entire time. I recommend watching the (very interesting!) security footage here.