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Spiral escalator: An engineering wonder ahead of its time

Spiral escalator – An engineering wonder ahead of its time

Written by Laura Sleath, Senior Curator

In 1988, the rusty remains of an engineering experiment were found buried at the bottom of a lift shaft at Holloway Road station. The remains were of a spiral escalator which had been installed in 1906, but abandoned shortly after – probably due to safety concerns.

Construction of the spiral escalator at Holloway Road station, 1906
Construction of the spiral escalator at Holloway Road station, 1906

The spiral escalator was designed by inventor Jesse Reno, who had unveiled the world’s first ‘inclined elevator’ in New York in 1896. His ambitious design at Holloway Road consisted of a double spiral which would have allowed a steady stream of passengers to ascend and descend at the same time with no waiting, unlike a lift. The two spirals encircled a central core – an outer spiral for the descent, and an inner one for the ascent. It ran continuously in a clockwise direction, travelling at a speed of 100 feet (30 metres) a minute. The journey to street level took approximately 45 seconds

It seems that the complex design was flawed and there is no evidence that the escalator ever entered passenger service. It was dismantled in 1911 and only found later during maintenance work.

Conserved section of spiral escalator installed at Holloway Road station, 1906
Conserved section of spiral escalator installed at Holloway Road station, 1906

In 1993, London Transport Museum rescued the surviving parts of the escalator from the lift shaft and later restored a large section, which can be seen at our Acton Depot. A smaller section will soon be going on display in our new Future Engineers gallery, opening in October 2018.

‘There is no doubt that walking upstairs is very fatiguing’ The Engineer, 10 August 1900

Just five years after Reno’s failed attempt, the Underground’s first escalators were installed at Earl’s Court station in 1911.  To allay any fears, a disabled man – William ‘Bumper’ Harris who had lost a leg in an accident – was invited to ride the escalators and demonstrate the safety of the new machines.

The escalators were so successful that they began replacing lifts on the network, which up until then had been the main way of getting passengers from deep level tunnels to the surface (and vice versa).

In 1913, the Underground Group commissioned a poster to celebrate the opening of the new Bakerloo line extension to Paddington station. Featuring prominently in the poster was the exciting ‘moving staircase subway connection’ – obviously considered a strong selling point for passengers tired of taking the stairs.

Paddington New Station, by Charles Sharland, 1913
Paddington New Station, by Charles Sharland, 1913

There are 440 passenger escalators on the Underground network today, and in its 40-year lifespan, an escalator will travel the equivalent distance of a trip to the moon and back. Reno’s dream of a spiral escalator has also become a reality – Mitsubishi Electric have been designing and installing spiral escalators around the world since the 1980s.