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“Air trains, ground trains, underground trains, people mailed through tubes special-delivery, and chains of cars race along horizontally, while express elevators pump masses of people vertically from one traffic level to another [...]”
This is how Robert Musil describes in his novel “The Man Without Qualities” what characterises life in the early twentieth-century world that has come to stand for modernity and progress: a mechanism of masses of people, traffic, speed and technology. Musil refers to trams and underground trains, the car and the elevator as vehicles of the city pulse. One means of transport goes unmentioned: the escalator. It would, however, fit very well in the list of moving devices. After all, it also already belongs to modern traffic and retail trade structures and increasingly shapes the image of the city.
As a product of US and European inventiveness, the escalator initially makes its way into larger cities around the turn of the century, arriving first in New York, Chicago, Berlin, Paris and London. At the connection points of the metropolitan flow it links different means and levels of transport with one another. Described at the time as a “diagonal elevator” or “stair elevator”, it was initially a source of great amazement and considered a fascinating yet frightening invention. But what was first viewed with admiration, by some with mistrust, has today long been taken for granted. Inspired by the industrial conveyor-belt, escalators now transport millions of people every day – up and down, on their way to work, to the shops or on holiday. All the more surprising, then, that this established, unquestioned part of our daily lives has only now become the subject of an assessment in the field of historical and cultural studies.
The work investigates the escalator with all its contradictions, characteristics and ambivalences, closing a gap in knowledge about the recent history of human mobility, human everyday life and its transport system. The escalator is described as a space, as a “non-place” to use the term coined by Marc Augé, which is both a technical artefact and a cultural and social space. It is therefore not only the technical object, the escalator and its specific surroundings that are considered here, but also its role and use: specific movements, conventions, attitudes, judgements, rituals and symbols. The analysis focuses on the symbiosis between humans and technology.
The work is divided into two sections, the first of which looks at the escalator from a historical, linguistic and technical viewpoint. It covers the history of the escalator and examines the development of its designations and its image. The second section is a cultural analysis which takes us from the classification of this means of transport in general contexts of civilisation (city and traffic, masses of people, automation of movement), through issues of its role (adaptation to and familiarisation with the device, the escalator ride as a modern ritual of transition, the stipulation of a mandatory direction, spoken and unspoken rules, the glance of those on an escalator, pictograms as behaviour guidelines), to the investigation of irregularities and their consequences (the escalator as a source of danger, the escalator accident).
The reader learns, for instance, the tricks used to get people onto escalators when they were first introduced – by offering smelling salts or cognac after the first ride. He may also find himself confronted with his own escalator experiences long since forgotten: the many possibilities of the transit phase – contemplation, becoming lost to the world, states of trance, encounters with other people, glances and moments creating a spark. Alongside this, though, the repressive side of the escalator comes to play, the inevitable – the lack of choice of direction, the sudden force of the device in the event of an accident, the escalator-specific pictograms which codify and intensify the danger signs.
The wide-ranging assessment of this subject is based on various methodical approaches. These include assessing words, interpretations and reflections as well as observing escalators in motion in department stores and subways, at stations and airports. The sources used are just as broad as the aspects studied. They encompass index cards by the famous technology researcher Feldhaus collected in Berlin, patent and corporate documents, standards set by DIN (German Institute for Standardization), engineering literature, accident reports and literary texts: novels, poetry, song texts and feature articles. Image sources such as photographs, technical drawings and caricatures, which are far more than illustrative enhancements, also went into the work.