Alexander Miles: Successful Black Businessman Improves Elevator Safety on 11 October 1887

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by Mary Bellis via www.thoughtco.com

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Alexander Miles

Updated April 16, 2017
Alexander Miles of Duluth, Minnesota patented an electric elevator (U.S. pat# 371,207) on October 11, 1887. His innovation in the mechanism to open and close elevator doors greatly improved elevator safety. Miles is notable for being a black inventor and successful business person in 19th Century America.

ELEVATOR PATENT – AUTOMATIC CLOSING DOORS
The problem with elevators at that time was that the doors of the elevator and the shaft had to be opened and closed manually.

This could be done either by those riding in the elevator, or a dedicated elevator operator. People would forget to close the shaft door. As a result, there were accidents with people falling down the elevator shaft. Miles was concerned when he saw a shaft door left open when he was riding an elevator with his daughter.

Miles improved the method of the opening and closing of elevator doors and the shaft door when an elevator was not on that floor. He created an automatic mechanism that closed access to the shaft by the action of the cage moving. His design attached a flexible belt to the elevator cage. When it went over drums positioned at the appropriate spots above and below a floor, it automated opening and closing the doors with levers and rollers.

Miles was granted a patent on this mechanism and it is still influential in elevator design today. He was not the only person to get a patent on automated elevator door systems, as John W. Meaker was granted a patent 13 years earlier.

LIFE OF ALEXANDER MILES
Miles was born in 1838 in Ohio to Michael Miles and Mary Pompy and is not recorded as having been a slave. He moved to Wisconsin and worked as a barber. He later moved to Minnesota where his draft registration showed he was living in Winona in 1863.

He showed his talents for invention by creating and marketing hair care products.

He met Candace Dunlap, a white woman who was a widow with two children. They married and moved to Duluth, Minnesota by 1875, where he lived for more than two decades. They had a daughter, Grace, in 1876.

In Duluth, the couple invested in real estate, and Miles operated the barber shop at the upscale St. Louis Hotel. He was the first black member of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce.

LATER LIFE OF ALEXANDER MILES
Miles and his family lived in comfort and prosperity in Duluth. He was active in politics and fraternal organizations. In 1899 he sold real estate investments in Duluth and moved to Chicago. He founded The United Brotherhood as a life insurance company that would insure black people, who were often denied coverage at that time.

Recessions took a toll on his investments, and he and his family resettled to Seattle, Washington. At one time it was believed he was the wealthiest black person in the Pacific Northwest, but that did not last. In the last decades of his life, he was again working as a barber.

He died in 1918 and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007.

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