Alexander Miles was an African American inventor who made a lasting impact on Black History. He is best known for his invention of the first automatic elevator, which he patented in 1887. Many people are unaware of his life and legacy details despite his contributions. In this blog post, we will explore ten unknown facts about the life and work of Alexander Miles, the inventor of the modern elevator.
1) Alexander Miles was born in October 1838
Miles was born in the free state of Ohio in 1838, possibly in Ohio’s Pickaway County/Circleville area. Alexander Miles was the son of Michael and Mary Miles and was of African descent. Miles may have lived in Chillicothe, Ohio, a nearby town, but he later relocated to Waukesha, Wisconsin, where he worked as a barber. After relocating to Winona, Minnesota, he met and wed Mrs. Candace J. (Shedd) Dunlap of La Porte, Indiana.
2) He was the inventor of the automatic elevator
In the late 19th century, Alexander Miles was a prominent Black inventor most known for creating elevator doors that could open and close on their own. His creation significantly increased the safety of an elevator, and automatic doors are still a standard feature on elevators today.
At that time, elevator doors had to be manually closed, frequently by specialized operators. If it weren’t sealed off, people could fall through the shaft, resulting in terrible accidents. Miles improved upon this technology by adding a flexible belt attachment to the elevator cage and drums placed to signal when the elevator has arrived at a floor. Using levers and rollers, the belt enabled automatic opening and closure when the elevator arrived at the drums on the appropriate floors.
The elevator shaft doors could open and close appropriately because Miles had fastened a flexible belt to the elevator cage, which made contact with drums placed along the elevator shaft just above and below the levels. Levers and rollers were used to automate the elevator doors themselves.
3). He was married to a white women
He met a White widow from Indiana with two children named Candace Dunlap. By 1875, they were married and had relocated to Duluth, Minnesota, where he spent more than 20 years. In 1876, their daughter Grace was born.
4). His daughter, Grace, may have inspired his invention
Grace, his daughter, was born in 1876. Some people think that Grace’s near-fatal experience involving falling down a shaft gave Alexander the idea for his elevator door mechanism.
5) He was self-educated
Although there is no evidence regarding Alexander Miles’ high school education because it is highly doubtful that he did, early 19th-century education was very different from today. Therefore, he taught himself various skills.
6). Miles was not the first to receive the patent
This device, which Miles was given a patent for in 1887, dramatically increased the security and effectiveness of elevators. Thirteen years prior, John W. Meaker received a patent for a similar device involving the automated closing of elevator doors.
He did, however, patent significant design advancements still in use today. Most elevators were steam-powered before Miles created the electric elevator (U.S. patent #371,207). Additionally, Miles created automated door opening and shutting, which increased safety by shielding passengers from the elevator shaft.
7). He owned a barbershop
Miles opened a barbershop in the four-story St. Louis Hotel in Duluth, where he had remarkable success as a barber. Even buying a real estate office with his savings was something he did. As a result of his commercial success, he became the first Black member of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce. In what became known as the “Miles Block,” Miles constructed a three-story brownstone structure in 1884.
8). Miles moved to Chicago in 1899
Miles and his family relocated to Chicago, Illinois, in 1899. There they founded The United Brotherhood, a life insurance business that largely supplied coverage to African Americans who couldn’t get it from white-owned businesses. Due to Chicago’s economic problems, Miles and his family moved to Seattle, Washington.
9). Miles became the only black member of Duluth’s Chamber of Commerce.
10) Wealthy but later poor
According to some estimates, Miles’s wealth was estimated to have been $500,000 thanks to his innovations, real estate, and hair care line. But twenty years later, Miles was living in a neighboring rooming house, working as a hairdresser at a Seattle hotel, widowed and poor.
His final home was Seattle, Washington, where he died in 1905. Despite the ambiguity around who obtained the patent first, Alexander Miles significantly advanced the elevator. Because they all rely on the same concept of automated opening and closing doors, modern elevators are still developed utilizing his fundamental ideas, and his patent is still considered for most elevators today. In many ways, his life and invention contributed to dismantling racial boundaries.
Alexander Miles’ mansion and a handful of his buildings were still standing in Duluth as of 2016, and his mechanism is still utilized in modern elevator construction. In 2007, Miles was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame thanks to the improvement he made to the elevator system, as described in My Black History.