Stairway to Heaven

I’ve always wondered at the design of the escalator system on many of London’s underground stations. It is such a simple idea, but the machinery involved is quite complex. The only design limitation came when they were retro fitted to existing stations with limited space.

It was in 1892 that the first working escalator materialised, or ‘Endless Conveyor or Elevator’ as it was named by inventor Jesse Wilford Reno, however this was a continuous belt system and not the stepped escalator we know today.

The French company Piat and Hallé installed the UK’s first escalator in Harrods, London, in 1898. 40 feet high and powered by a continuous leather belt comprising 224 linked ‘steps’, it caused quite a stir among its first user, a history of the department store recalls “Customers unnerved by the experience were revived by shopmen dispensing free smelling salts and cognac.” 

Bumper Harris

The first working escalator on the Underground was installed at Earl’s Court in 1911. There was still some public trepidation, a hangover from the Harrods installation. To allay any fears, a disabled man William ‘Bumper’ Harris who had lost a leg in an accident was invited to ride the escalators all day and demonstrate the safety of the new machines. His walking stick and watch can be seen at the Transport Museum as can a model of the escalator.

Earl’s Court Escalators 1911
Earl’s Court Escalator Now

They were an instant success and from 1912 all new deep-level stations were provided with escalators instead of lifts, but it was an earlier attempt that caught my attention.

When space was limited in existing stations the lift had to be kept, however one of the pioneers of escalator design Jesse Reno came up with what he thought was a novel solution. The problem with the lift in deep-level stations is that they could only transport small numbers of passengers from platform to street level and vice versa, this lead to congestion on both levels (Try Russell Square on a busy morning to see this in action)

Holloway Road, Piccadilly Line

In 1906 Reno’s ambitious design was used at Holloway Road in North London, which consisted of a double spiral which would have allowed a steady stream of passengers to ascend and descend at the same time with no waiting, unlike a lift. The two spirals encircled a central core, an outer spiral for the descent, and an inner one for the ascent. It ran continuously in a clockwise direction, travelling at a speed of 100 feet (30 metres) a minute. The journey to street level took approximately 45 seconds.

Holloway Road spiral escalator
Part of Reno’s escalator

Unfortunately it seems that the complex design was flawed and there is no evidence that the escalator ever entered passenger service. It was dismantled in 1911, stored in the bowels of the station, then forgotten and only found later during maintenance work. In 1993, London Transport Museum rescued the surviving parts of the escalator from Holloway Road and later restored a large section which is stored in their repository. A smaller section can be seen in the Museum based in Covent Garden.

Today there are 451 passenger escalators across the Tube network. But they’re not your typical escalator as they travel up to 0.75 metres (2.46 feet) per second, almost a foot per second faster than the early models. It would take another 79 years from Reno’s trial before the first public spiral escalator was opened in 1985 at the International Exhibition Center, Osaka, Japan.

By endean0

Hi, I'm Steve, a London tour guide and owner of A London Miscellany Tours, a guided walking tour company who specialise in small number tours of the greatest city in the world!

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