Genius or guillotine: would you get in a Paternoster lift?

An internationally underrated feat of engineering is facing extinction: The paternoster lift, a doorless elevator system, is at risk of grinding to a halt.

To the people of Germany, these quaint, convenient cabins are are being unfairly banned, but to many, these systems are a real health and safety risk. Can the paternoster lift survive?

What is a paternoster passenger lift?

So how does a paternoster elevator work? A paternoster lift is a type of passenger lift that consists of a chain or conveyor belt of open compartments that move slowly in a loop up and down inside a building. As each car reaches the top (or bottom) of the loop. It shifts sideways before descending (or ascending). It does all this without stopping, and passengers step on and off at any floor they like.

Peter Ellis installed the first paternoster lifts in Oriel Chambers, Liverpool in 1868. It’s said the name paternoster—meaning ‘Our Father’, the first two words of the Lord’s Prayer—was given to the device because the lift’s loop is reminiscent of the rosary beads used to recite prayers. Typically, cabins are able to accommodate two people at a time.

The paternoster was designed for speed and efficiency; no longer would riders have to wait in a lobby while a single lift climbs to the top of a building and back. They’re a little redundant today, when lifts are much larger and much faster than ever before. The design of the paternoster lift is also a little counter-intuitive given the fact that passenger lifts are most often installed to improve accessibility for those with disabilities.

The high risk of accidents caused by people tripping or falling when trying to enter or exit the moving compartment has earned the paternoster lift it’s disturbing ‘guillotine’ association. Paternoster lift accidents are a real threat. Because of fears the unstoppable open cabins might one day slice a passenger in half. Following a fatal accident in 1970, attempts were made to modernise the paternoster in to improve the safety of the design.

The construction of paternosters across the EU was suspended for good in the mid-1970s owing to disability access regulations and further safety concerns. Given that modern passenger lifts are largely considered to be the safest form of transport, why would anyone wish to continue to risk injury—even death—in the outdated paternoster?

What is so special about the paternoster passenger lift?

One of the main advantages of the paternoster elevator system is that it usually allows six to eight cars to circulate in a continuous loop in the space normally occupied by just two. In the UK, paternoster lifts were particularly favoured by universities owing to the amount of multi-storey campus buildings that sprang up during the 1960s. Leicester University’s Attenborough Tower had a paternoster. As did the Muirhead Tower at The University of Birmingham and the Art Tower Sheffield. The Arts Tower at the University of Sheffield has a paternoster lift said to be the longest in the world, with 38 passenger cars.

There are 231 surviving examples of paternoster passenger lifts in Germany alone, where there was a significant wave of resistance to a Government attempt to ban the conveyor belt-style systems in 1994. At that time, a dedicated Paternoster Association was founded in Munich with a mandate to protect the paternoster from extinction, but they’re still the target of government officials concerned over their safety: In 2010, Germany’s labor minister Andrea Nahles proposed only trained employees be allowed to use the elevators.

From theatre to film, directors have seized on the dramatic potential of the paternoster, a famous example being the 1948 picture Berlin Express. The systems have also been immortalised in literature. In David Lodge’s Changing Places, a paternoster hosts a chase involving the American academic Morris Zapp. He lauds the contraption as a “profoundly poetic machine” that “imparted to the ordinary, quotidian action of taking an elevator a certain existential edge of drama.”

Can the paternoster passenger lift survive?

Across Germany in particular, as well as many other champions of the paternoster across Europe, there are fears an all out ban will soon lead to paternoster extinction. Just one working example of the innovative passenger lifts survives in London, at the Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow. With increasingly tight restrictions and considerable maintenance costs limiting the operations of Europe’s remaining paternosters, many fall into disuse every year.

For now, it’s dedicated enthusiasts that are all that stand in the way of the paternoster grinding to a halt. Despite their scarcity, champions of the paternoster lift remain, sharing happy memories of the circular transport systems and hoping for their preservation as icons of a bygone age. Students at Salford University used to entertain visitors by travelling over the top of the paternoster and re-emerging standing upside-down on their heads.

But as with all technologies, the paternoster is destined to evolve: In April 2006, Hitachi announced plans for a modern paternoster-style elevator “This time, with doors”, and computer-controlled cars. Manufacturer ThyssenKrupp is said to be working on a paternoster-inspired system that can run both vertically and horizontally, called MULTI. All this proposes a future for the intriguing passenger lifts yet.


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