The sky’s the limit for maglev elevators

With the official public opening of the One World Observatory at One World Trade Center in New York City scheduled for Friday, we got to thinking about elevators …

In 1853 at the New York World’s Fair at New York’s Crystal Palace, a 40-year-old American inventor and businessman named Elisha Otis stood on a hoisting platform high above a crowd of spectators anxiously awaiting his presentation. Otis’s next move would be a death-defying feat that would literally change city skylines forever.

Elisha Graves Otis shows his first elevator in the Crystal Palace, New York City, 1853. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Elisha Graves Otis shows his first elevator in the Crystal Palace, New York City, 1853. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Like a magician, Otis astonished the crowd by ordering an axman to cut the only rope that was suspending the platform on which he was standing. The platform fell just a few inches and then froze still, as if suspended in midair. “All safe, gentlemen,” he emphatically exclaimed as people applauded loudly. Otis had successfully demonstrated how his revolutionary new elevator safety brake could prevent an elevator from falling to the Earth if the hoisting cable unexpectedly broke. His ingenious creation allowed for the debut of passenger elevators and safer travel inside multi-floored buildings, but just as importantly it pushed the boundaries of architecture into the blue and paved the way for the construction of modern skyscrapers and cities.

Check out this animation of Otis presenting at the World’s Fair. 

Even today, despite many advancements in elevator technology, a skyscraper design is still constrained by one unavoidable engineering hurdle: Above approximately 2,000 feet high, the cables in a standard elevator can no longer support both the elevator car and their own weight, which is why passengers traveling to the highest floors of towers must switch elevators halfway to the top. In fact, it takes three elevators to reach the Empire State Building’s 102-floor-high observatory, including a final two-minutes in the glass-ceilinged “Top of the Rock” car.

But a new magnet-driven system called MULTI is poised to become the first breakthrough in elevator technology since Otis’s theatrical unveiling of his safety brake 162 years ago. According to a recent article in Popular Science magazine, German elevator company ThyssenKrupp is pushing the boundaries of architecture and physics by “trading elevator cables for tracks that use magnetic levitation,” which will allow elevator cars to literally “float” to the highest floors of a building and shatter the ceiling of most architects’ imaginations.

Maglev elevators pushing boundaries of inter-building transportation & design efficiencies

Magnetic levitation transportation, otherwise known as Maglev, received a lot of attention several years ago when it was introduced as a method for propelling high-speed trains in Asia and Europe. In fact, the Shanghai Maglev Train, the Transrapid, is the fastest commercial train currently in operation with speeds topping 270 miles per hour and the ability to cover a distance of 20 miles in just eight minutes — traditional trains with wheels on rails cause tremendous friction that accelerates wear and tear and prevent trains from reaching these higher speeds.

Similar to maglev trains, the magnet-driven system for elevators, known as MULTI, will allow elevator cars to essentially levitate to their destination by leveraging magnets in the car that will repel opposing magnets along the track, causing the car to hover. A separate set of coils along the track will push and pull the car in its intended direction, resulting in a faster climb to higher levels of the building with far less friction and resistance. Beyond just higher speeds and smoother rides, the MULTI system for elevators is also more agile than a typical elevator pulley system and can be used to access areas of the building beyond the typical vertical elevator shaft. With MULTI, the elevator car’s orientation can actually change using a rotating section of rail that can shift the direction of the moving magnetic field so the car can move across the building horizontally, allowing users instant access to other areas of the building.

The MULTI system would also allow for multiple elevator cars that would travel in a circular route within the same shaft (think of a vertical subway) instead of today’s standard one-car-per-shaft systems, which would mean shorter wait times for elevator rides. It has been estimated that MULTI will carry 50 percent more passengers while dramatically reducing elevator wait and travel times. MULTI also makes better use of building space. Approximately 20 percent of most high-rise buildings are consumed by space dedicated to elevator shafts. The taller the building, the more elevators necessary to service the additional floors, which consume valuable floor square footage and reduce the profitability of the building. Since MULTI wouldn’t require additional elevators to transport users to the top floors, ThyssenKrupp estimates that MULTI could reduce the elevator footprint in future buildings by 50 percent, resulting in an increase in building efficiencies, significant savings in construction costs and an exponential surge in rent revenues for developers due to the dramatic increase in usable floor space.

The dawn of “Super Buildings”

MULTI, which is still a prototype but will be installed in a test tower in Rottweil, Germany in 2017, will have an enormous impact on the design of future skyscrapers. For example, the Edison Tower, an ambitious dream of German developer Frank Jendrusch, is designed to reach nearly 4,300 feet high, or approximately four-fifths of a mile (in comparison, One World Trade Center, which is the tallest structure in the Western Hemisphere, stands at 1,776 feet tall). The MULTI system within this enormous building could run elevator cars 4,200 feet directly from the ground floor straight to the observation deck, more than twice the distance of a traditional elevator system.

The invention of the elevator and brake system were preconditions for the dawn of skyscrapers. Now, with the advancement of new elevator technologies, innovations like MULTI, and the smashing of the 2,000-foot elevator height ceiling, “the sky’s the limit” for architects and developers who can now think bigger and bolder as they change the course of history and design awe-inspiring high-rises that will reshape city skylines for generations to come.

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications Dan Antonellis, who can be reached at Connect with him on LinkedIn here and follow him on Twitter at @DanAntonellis.


  1. tonyon

    maglev&zipper for space elevator future


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s