Friday, April 14, 2017
From Liverpool to Sheffield...
...from the 1860s to the 1960s: Peter Ellis’s ups and downs
It’s interesting, the way one finds out about things.
A very long time ago (it would have been in the 1970s), I was advised by at least three people, including my college tutor and some close friends, to read the novel Changing Places by David Lodge. This is a very funny account of two men, one British, one American, both professors of English Literature, who swap jobs for a year as part of an academic exchange scheme. Aside from all the other interesting things about the book (the characters, the writing), it gives the novelist a wonderful way of talking about two cultures, about how English was taught in two different milieus (Lodge was also a professor of English), about fiction itself.
Much of this has stuck with me, but there, is (you saw it coming?) an architectural footnote to all this. Towards the end of the novel there’s a funny scene set in a modernist tower block in the British university. This tower is fitted with a special sort of lift (or elevator, in transatlantic English) called a paternoster, up and down which one character chases another.* For those of you who don’t know, a paternoster is an ‘endless chain’ elevator, which has two shafts instead of one, and a number of lift cars instead of one. The cars are open-fronted and move continuously in a cycle, up one shaft and down the other – and you enter and leave them while they are moving. The advantages are that you don’t have to wait – there is always a lift arriving, and the carrying capacity is much greater than a conventional elevator because of the number of cars. The drawback is that you have to be able to get in and out quickly.¶
For years, for me, the paternoster remained something in a book. I’d never seen one. Then I went to the city of Zlín in the Czech Republic, and looked at the headquarters tower of the Bat’a shoe company. And there is was, a paternoster, quietly moving up and down on its well oiled chains and pulleys and gears, as it had been doing for well over 70 years. I discovered that there are quite a few paternosters in Central Europe (the Czechs have a thing about them and the Germans are not far behind) and one or two in England, although in many places, because of health and safety concerns, they move no more.†
Until recently, the received wisdom has been that the paternoster was invented in the 1870s by the engineer Peter Hart. However, Robert Ainsworth and Graham Jones have shown that an earlier patent was taken out – by none other than the Liverpool architect Peter Ellis, architect of Oriel Chambers, the building in my previous post.§ Apparently Oriel Chambers had a paternoster, fitted soon after Ellis’s 1866 patent was taken out, though it does no longer. For some reason, Ellis did not renew his patent, and Ainsworth and Jones speculate that someone else may have bought the rights from him.
Ellis, who was clearly a talented engineer as well as an architect, has several inventions to his credit, such as an improved water closet, a secure letterbox, and an omnibus incorporating a device for preventing crew from pocketing some of the fare money. They are all answers to specific problems, addressed with thoughtful engineering solutions. The paternoster too is like this in the way it increases capacity and reduces waiting times. The inventor even tried to address the problems of those who are unable to get on and off quickly by adding a braking device so that the endless chain could be temporarily halted. For all this, and for being mesmerized by one a few years ago in Zlín, I like paternosters. I think one can admire their ingenuity while admitting that they’ve had their time. And I increasingly admire Peter Ellis’s ingenuity the more I find out about him.
The video above, with footage from Sheffield University's arts tower, explains a bit more about how paternosters work; the discovery of Ellis's invention came after the film was made.
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* A huge simplification of what is going on, but it will do for now.
¶ The name 'paternoster' (Our Father) comes from a comparison of this type of lift with a string of rosary beads. David Lodge taught at Birmingham University, which in many ways serves as the model for the University of Rummidge in the novel. As far as I know, Birmingham University does not have a paternoster, although there was one at the nearby university of Aston. Lodge would not doubt have known this one, as well as the one in Sheffield. Not that it matters where he got this idea from.
† The Zlín building also has another memorable lift, a large one in which the office of the company boss Tomáš Bat’a was installed, so he could work on any floor he chose. Truly the Czechs go up and down with style.
§ Robert Ainsworth and Graham Jones, In the Footsteps of Peter Ellis (Liverpool History Society, 2013)
Finally, thanks to Joe Treasure, whose picture of Oriel Chambers used in my previous post set this not-quite-endless train of thoughts in motion.