Jesse W. Reno's "inclined elevator," the predecessor to today's escalators, was introduced to the public in September of 1896 at Coney Island's Old Iron Pier. Seventy-five thousand adventure-seeking patrons summited its peak during its two-week stay at the park. The escalator precursor reached a height of seven feet and had an incline of twenty-five degrees.
Reno was born in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in 1861. He spent his early life in midwestern and southern states; when he was sixteen years old his family moved to Americus, Georgia where he began constructing early plans for his "inclined elevator."
In 1883 he graduated from Lehigh's emergent engineering program and completed a thesis titled The Hudson River Tunnel. At Lehigh he had been involved in many activities, outside of his engineering classes. He was in the Engineering Society, a member of Chi Phi (Psi Chapter), President of that fraternity's Lawn Tennis Club, Class Historian, editor for the Epitome in 1882, and he sang second tenor in the University Choir. He was also a right-fielder for the University baseball team, and Pitcher and Captain for the '82 team.
Following graduation he worked for a Colorado mining company and later with the Thomson-Houston Electric Company. His engineering aptitude and uncommon ambition combined with the technological boom of the late nineteenth century eventually attracted him to bustling New York City. It wasn't until 1892 that he received his first patent for plans to build an electric-powered, motor-driven, moving stairway.
The endless conveyor displayed first at Coney Island and later at the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge was born into history only after its creator received a major professional setback. In the early part of 1896, Reno submitted extensive plans to New York City officials to build a double-decker subway system beneath the city's streets. His plans included designs for "inclined elevators" to transport passengers from street to underground station. His plans were rejected, but his ideas survived. Several innovative features on the original inclined elevator are found in the modern escalator, including the rubber-covered chain handrail and a comb of projecting fingers at each end of the machine. This latter feature prevented users' feet and other objects from getting stuck in the motion of the conveyor when exiting at floor level.
Within five years following its showcase at Coney Island, Reno's machine was finding its way into dozens of department stores and railway stations in the Northeast United States and England. In 1902, he founded Reno Electric Stairways and Conveyors, Ltd. In 1906, his design for a spiral escalator was installed in the London Underground system. A decade after his company's incorporation, Reno's patents were bought out by Otis Elevators who had already dubbed their own, similar machine the "escalator." Otis sold a version of Reno's inclined elevator under the name "Cleat-type Escalator" until 1924. Reno died in 1947, but some of his inclined elevators were still in operation in the Boston subway system and a Philadelphia department store as late as the 1990s.
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Birthplace: Fort Leavenworth, KA
Degree: B.S. engineering
Notable Achievement: Inventor of precursor to the escalator