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March 28, 2022

The Paternoster: The Non-Stop Europe’s Doorless Elevator

A paternoster is a passenger elevator which consists of a chain of open compartments (each usually designed for two people) that move slowly in a loop up and down inside a building without stopping. Passengers can step on or off at any floor they like. The same technique is also used for filing cabinets to store large amounts of (paper) documents or for small spare parts. The much smaller belt manlift which consists of an endless belt with steps and rungs but no compartments is also sometimes called a paternoster.

The name paternoster (“Our Father”, the first two words of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin) was originally applied to the device because the elevator is in the form of a loop and is thus similar to rosary beads used as an aid in reciting prayers.

The construction of new paternosters was stopped in the mid-1970s out of concern for safety, but public sentiment has kept many of the remaining examples open. By far most remaining paternosters are in Europe, with 230 examples in Germany, and 68 in the Czech Republic. Only three have been identified outside Europe: one in Malaysia, one in Sri Lanka and another in Peru.

Peter Ellis installed the first elevators that could be described as paternoster lifts in Oriel Chambers in Liverpool in 1868. Another was used in 1876 to transport parcels at the General Post Office in London. In 1877, British engineer Peter Hart obtained a patent on the first paternoster. In 1884, the engineering firm of J & E Hall of Dartford, Kent, installed its first “Cyclic Elevator”, using Hart’s patent, in a London office block.

The newly built Dovenhof in Hamburg was inaugurated in 1886. The prototype of the Hamburg office buildings equipped with the latest technology also had a paternoster. This first system outside of Great Britain already had the technology that would later become common, but was still driven by steam power like the British systems. The highest paternoster lift in the world was located in Stuttgart in the 16-floor Tagblatt tower, which was completed in 1927.

Paternosters were popular throughout the first half of the 20th century because they could carry more passengers than ordinary elevators. They were more common in continental Europe, especially in public buildings, than in the United Kingdom. They are relatively slow elevators, typically traveling at about 30 cm per second (approx. 1 ft per second), to facilitate getting on and off.


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