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The fear of the dangerous new automatic elevators in old-time Phoenix


Personally, I've never seen an elevator that wasn't automatic. That is, other than in movies, I've never seen how elevators were operated for decades, by having someone in the car driving them. In fact, to me the idea just seems ridiculous. An elevator operator? And yet they were very important people, and when they went away, when elevators were automated, it caused a lot of fear.

Time-travel with me to a time when a lot of the buildings in Phoenix were converting their elevators to become automatic. And that means that we're now expected to get into an elevator and trust that it will work, while it's trapped us inside and we're moving up hundreds of feet in the air, with nobody driving. I'd like to believe that I would have been one of the brave people who were among the first to try it, but maybe I wouldn't have.

Just like today, whenever something is automated, it means that jobs are lost. I can just picture the frustration people felt in old-time Phoenix when an elevator, which in the past had a friendly face, was empty. So the first thing we would say to each other when we finally figured out which buttons to push to open the elevator door, is "Where's Bill?" That is, the elevator operator that we had been saying good morning to for years. Hopefully he can find another job, but I understand that he had been there for twenty years.

There must have been something nice about seeing a friendly face in an elevator and simply saying "9th floor, please". Operating a manual elevator wasn't exactly rocket science, but it was something that people took pride in, as their job. And as a busy executive I would appreciate having people around me to do these things. Good elevator operators were friendly, and respectful, calling men "sir" and women "ma'am".

Like all types of dangerous automation, I'm sure that there were people who wouldn't dream of getting into a "driverless elevator". And really, elevators weren't just like putting a nickel in a soda machine - if a soda machine failed, you didn't get a soda. If an elevator failed, you were in big trouble, including the very real possibility of getting stuck in a tiny room, and being unable to get out.

Of course the young people would never see this, and just consider old people to be kinda crazy. Nowadays I compare it to ATMs (Automated Teller Machines), and I talk to a lot of people who are too young to remember a time when you couldn't push a few buttons to get cash out of a machine. And the list goes on an on, such as automatic transmissions in cars, which automatically shift gears, which must have seemed hard for the old-timers to trust. If you're over forty, I'm sure that you can add to this list.

Thank you for riding the elevator with me in old-time Phoenix! What? You're taking the stairs? Well, I don't blame you.

Image at the top of this post: the Elevators at the Luhrs Tower in 1954, 1st Avenue and Jefferson, Phoenix, Arizona. They're still there, and yes, you have to operate them yourself.

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