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.

11 comments:

Chris Partridge said...

There was a Paternoster in the LSE. There was a popular student prank when someone would go "over the top" and stand on their head on the way down...

Peter Ashley said...

There's a Paternoster at Leicester University. The one and only Mrs.Ashley completely misjudged her exit once with the attendant spraining of an ankle. It didn't help when I said "Poor you, but what a story to tell".

George said...

Some parking garages in the US have them for the use of the attendants. I don't drive much these days, so I don't know how common they are.

Stephen Barker said...

I remember the one in the Arts Tower at Sheffield back in the 1970's on a visit to see what the University had to offer.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you all for your comments and memories. 'Going over the top' was prevalent, I think, in those many locations in which students and paternosters got mixed up. In the Davids Lodge novel one of the characters (a professor not a student) goes over the top, but hasn't worked out how the paternoster works. He thinks the lift cars turn upside-down as they go around, so does a handstand in anticipation, to amusing effect.

E Berris said...

There was one in Duisburg Town Hall in the early 1950s but I have never seen one since, so thank you for this - now I know what they are called. It seemed very, very advanced and scary to use to a teenager!

Jack Kirby said...

There was in fact a paternoster in the Muirhead Tower at the University of Birmingham (by Arup Associates, 1970) which would have been the inspiration for Lodge. It was gone by the late 1990s when I was there, replaced with conventional lifts which didn't cope very well with the numbers using the building. A longstanding academic remarked to me ruefully that "Muirhead worked with a paternoster".
A reasonably successful refurbishment about a decade ago added to the building not only the inevitable Starbucks (real coffee was unknown on campus when I was a student) but the latest in vertical transport, a 'destination control system', by which users punch in their floor number to a panel and are advised which lift to take, the software then grouping users by destination. This overcomes the necessity for the lift to stop at almost every floor when busy.

Ex Pat said...

I had never heard of a paternoster, but Changing Places by David Lodge was a super book.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Jack: Thank you so much for clearing that up about the Muirhead Tower. I kicked myself for not looking this up, but I'd read that there was a paternoster at Aston University, and had therefore assumed that this would have been the one Lodge saw. But of course in the novel, the 'University of Rummidge' is modelled mainly on Birmingham University, so Lodge would have seized upon this memorable Birmingham paternoster and set the pursuit scene with Morris Zapp and Gordon Masters in and around it.
It's interesting, too, about the 'destination control system'. Another clever engineering answer to a specific need - except that now the engineering is software engineering, not the oily cogs sort.

Joe Treasure said...

Changing Places has been close to my heart since the 1980s when I changed places with an English teacher from California. My colleagues in Wales nicknamed my exchange partner Morris Zapp, a role he was well suited for. I've never seen a paternoster lift but it looks like a fine invention. As Jack Kirby says, the destination control system is another way of speeding things up. There's one in the residential tower at the Barbican. For slowing things down, on the other hand, there's the Shabbat elevator, which I first encountered in the Jerusalem Hilton.

Sarah said...

I have had the pleasure/terror of riding the paternoster in the Arts Tower, Sheffield. Hearing about it, I was surprised it was still in operation but there it is, floating up and down and submerging itself to the depth of the lower ground level to do the dreaded turnaround. Truly a piece of history.