Catching up with the future

Automotive-sector | Urbanization | thyssenkrupp is revolutionizing the invention of the elevator and with it people’s mobility. look at the world of film and literature shows that the MULTI displays capabilities dreamed up long ago by visionaries and sci-fi romanticists. A dream of unrestricted mobility.

Willy Wonka is a busy man. A businessman and owner of a huge chocolate and candy factory. Time and mobility count in his business – his customers are a demanding bunch. That’s why he’s installed a “Wonkavator” in his factory, a true masterpiece of engineering. Unlike an ordinary lift that can only travel up and down, this great glass elevator can go “sideways, and slantways, and longways, and backways and squareways, and front ways, and any other ways that you can think of”. It can even carry Wonka into space.

The seemingly endless capabilities of the Wonkavator are described by Roald Dahl in his enchanting 1964 children’s book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. Film adaptations of the book also captivated later generations, such as the 1971 version featuring the late Gene Wilder.More recently in 2005 Johnny Depp starred as the quirky candy maker. This film provided one of the most fantastical appearances of an elevator in movie history.

“Willy Wonka-style lift is a reality” proclaimed the Times of India when thyssenkrupp unveiled the MULTI at the end of 2014 raising eyebrows worldwide. Not without reason, because the innovation with its sideways traveling cab and electromagnetic drive revolutionizes a concept that has been seemingly unshakeable for 160 years. Only one cab on one rope in one shaft – that’s so yesterday. The journalists had obviously been put in mind of the amazing elevator in Dahl’s book.

A symbolic means of transportation

Elevators have featured in books and films ever since they were first invented, though always in supporting roles and not always creating the same enthusiasm as in the case of the magic chocolate factory.

In many cases the elevator became a symbol of confinement. One of the earliest mentions in literature is by US writer William Dean Howells. In his 1889 stage play “The Elevator” a party of guests become trapped in an elevator on their way to a fancy dinner party. What follows is an intimate chamber play in the claustrophobic confines of an elevator car. To this day, this sense of unease evidently creates a special kind of suspense, for example in Stig Svendsen’s 2011 film “Elevator”, in which nine people become trapped in a Wall Street elevator. First they have to deal with one another, then with a bomb.

Whether with Keanu Reeves, Bruce Willis or Tom Cruise: Elevator shafts have been the setting for some memorable breathtaking scenes in numerous action movies. The shaft is frequently presented as an abyss, or even as a pathway to a person’s soul. In Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”, the elevator is a vehicle into the subconscious mind of Dom Cobb, played by Leonardo Di Caprio. It’s no coincidence that the majority of the films with elevator in their title are psychological thrillers or horror movies.

Link between two worlds

That the top and bottom of the elevator shaft can reflect society in general was illustrated in Fritz Lang’s award-winning 1927 film “Metropolis”. The image of exhausted workers marching in lockstep towards a huge industrial elevator that will take them down to a subterranean workers’ city showed that in Lang’s eyes urban life in the 1920s also meant social contrast and skepticism towards progress. The “vertical world” of the future could bring with it social segregation and inequality – something which remains a challenge to urbanization to this day.

The science-fiction classic Blade Runner also addresses this theme with powerful images. In his dystopian vision of the future director Ridley Scott shows elevators in rain-soaked Los Angeles climbing the facades of the monumental buildings in which the upper class live. It’s the elevators that let them escape from the squalor of the jam-packed streets to their insulated apartments above, right up to the lonely technology magnate Tyrell, whose monumental pyramid towers over the entire city.

In any case the elevator is a vehicle linking different worlds. But overall isn’t this a very pessimistic view of a means of transportation that carries roughly a billion people every day and is regarded as the safest in the world?

The final frontier: Unrestricted mobility thanks to technology

Science fiction has also painted visions of unrestricted mobility, for example the turbolift in the US series Star Trek.

It was in 1966, during the height of the Cold War, that screenwriter and pilot Gene Roddenberry converted his ideal-driven vision of the future into a TV series, laying the foundations for one of the most successful franchises in film and TV history. Where Lang’s and Scott’s visions were critical of progress and society, Star Trek conveys belief in progress and pioneering spirit.

And the turbolift? This “elevator” transports Captain James T. Kirk and his crew comfortably and directly throughout the Starship Enterprise, for example from the bridge to the engine room, and can also travel horizontally – without a rope. Originally devised by the filmmakers no doubt as a trick to compress the huge dimensions of the starship to TV-friendly size, it soon became as much part of the Star Trek world as “beaming” and “warp drive”. The authors always tried to base their stories on specific science. According to one USS Enterprise technical manual the turbolift reaches a speed of 10 meters per second. It consists of “cylindrical cabs” powered by “linear induction motors” via “three electromagnetic conduits”.


New opportunities for multi-dimensional urbanization

An elevator that goes sideways? Driven by an electromagnetic linear motor? Ring any bells? In the 50th anniversary year of the Star Trek universe the turbolift has almost become reality with the MULTI, more so certainly than the Wonkavator, which as Wired correctly pointed out can also fly into space. But the MULTI is part of a long line of innovations that have caught up with past visions of the future dreamed up by science-fiction romanticists, like tablet computers or soon maybe universal translators and artificial intelligence.

It’s probable therefore that in the future elevators will be less associated with the depths of the “vertical world”. That’s because the MULTI brings new opportunities for multi-dimensional urbanization – and expands on a 160 year-old principle. We will have to wait and see what new film scenes it will inspire, but the story of the elevator that can really go sideways is currently being written by thyssenkrupp. That on its own is a good story, don’t you think?

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