GREAT TECHNOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENTS create a universe. The invention of the escalator was, literally, groundbreaking. It expanded our concept of space and time— and, accordingly, redefined the possibilities for commerce.
For those within the intellectual property system, the escalator is famous for its association with the phenomenon of “trademark genericide.” Trademark genericide occurs when trademarks become so famous that they cease to identify the source of goods or services in the minds of consumers and instead become names for the goods themselves. “Escalator” is right up there with “aspirin,” “cellophane,” and “kitty litter” as an example of a brand that morphed into its product. And it's true that the intellectual property story of the escalator is, in part, how Charles Seeberger's brand of moving staircases grew to symbolize the thing itself. But the larger story is about the cultural phenomenon, an invention that transformed the way we interact with the world. How people move. How sales are made. How the built world is constructed. Before the escalator was invented, commerce and transportation were largely one-dimensional. Stairs and elevators were for the committed and purposeful, their limitations constraining vertical expansion, above and below ground. Stairs require patience and effort. Elevators have a unique, precise, and tightly constrained mission. The invention of the escalator changed everything: suddenly, a constant flow of people could ascend into the air, or descend to the depths. The escalator modified architecture itself, creating fluid transitions into spaces above and below. Now, in commerce and transportation, neither the sky nor the ground would be the limit.
The first conceptual articulation of an escalator was “An Improvement in Stairs,” described in an 1859 US patent issued to Nathan Ames. Ames was an inventor with several patents, including a railroad switch, aprintingpress, and a combination knife, fork, and spoon. Ames’ patent made claim over an endless belt of steps revolving around three mechanical wheels that could be powered by hand, weights, or steam.
This version of the moving stairway didn't gain much momentum, however, and was never built.