Alexander Miles: The Genius Whose Invention Is Still In Use Today

Alexander Miles

Alexander Miles is well known as the inventor who revolutionized the design for elevators, ensuring they were safer for all. This article explores his work and his life.

Alexander Miles’ innovative ideas helped save lives and have left a lasting mark on society that can still be seen today.

Born in 1838 in Minnesota, Alexander Miles led a fascinating and varied life. Through the 1860’s he worked as a barber. After moving to Winoa from Wisconsin, Miles met his wife, Candace J.Dunlap. 

His daughter was born in 1879, and shortly after, Miles moved his family to Duluth, Minnesota. 

In Duluth, Miles set up and operated his own barbershop in the St. Louis Hotel. He also purchased a real estate office and eventually built a three-story brownstone building. 

The area of this building quickly became known as Miles Block.

Due to his business achievements, Miles earned a spot as the first black member of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce. 

During this time, Miles started to think about how to improve the way that elevators operated.

Miles became concerned about the safety features of elevators after noticing that a shaft door had been left open while riding with his daughter. 

Some reports suggest that his daughter fell down an open shaft and nearly died. 

Miles began to develop a new concept to improve the general function of the elevator door. Both the doors and the shaft had to be manually opened and closed until that point. 

Reports of people falling into the shafts, often to their deaths, were common.

The idea was simple yet critical. When an elevator arrived or departed a given floor, the doors would open or close automatically. His design would ultimately save lives and make buildings overall far less hazardous. 

To make his concept work, Miles attached a flexible belt to the elevator cage. When the belt hit the drums located along the elevator shaft, the elevator shaft doors operated at the key times. 

The elevator doors worked through a series of rollers and levers. 

Mile’s work paved the way for electric-powered automated doors to be used worldwide. Today they are, of course, a standard feature, and for this, Miles is directly responsible. 

This wasn’t the only creation that Miles was interested in. He is also known to have toyed with the idea of creating and selling his own hair products. 

However, his work to help the world and particularly black Americans, did not stop there. In 1899, Miles relocated to Chicago. It was here that he founded The United Brotherhood.

The life insurance company was set up to provide life insurance to African-Americans who were commonly unable to get coverage from other white-owned firms. Miles firmly believed that insurance companies were using discriminative rates for black Americans. 

He sought to offer a more viable alternative. 

Eventually, Miles relocated his family once more to Seattle due to economic concerns. 

Before his death in May 1918, Miles was known as the wealthiest African-American living in the Pacific Northwest region. This was primarily due to his success as an inventor. 

In 2007, he was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.