On Wednesday, November 16th, 1898, Harrods department store in London opened up the first escalator – or moving staircase as it was called – in England. The first escalator-like machine in the world had actually been patented many decades before in the US, but this was the first real application in England and likely one of the first in the world.
At the end of the 1800s, this was a big deal. Victorian England had never seen or experienced anything like this before and people were genuinely concerned about its use. More specifically, people worried what such a rapid change in elevation would do to the body. It was believed that it could discombobulate your inner workings. People were unnerved.
Which is why when it was first introduced at Harrods, people were offered brandy and other substances at the top of the escalator in order “to revive them after their ordeal.” Riding an escalator was no small feat for these people.
Now to us today, this sounds ludicrous. Most of us probably ride a few escalators a day. They’re ubiquitous. But I tell this story because I think it clearly underlines how disruptive the new and unknown can feel, and how difficult it can be for us to accept sometimes.
If you go back throughout history, you could easily replace escalators for many other new technologies: the printing press, the automobile, the internet, and so on. And in some cases we were wrong to worry, and in other cases we were right to worry.
Cars, for example, have had a pretty dramatic impact on our lives and the way we build our cities. And since the very beginning, they had no shortage of critics. But does that mean we should have never invented the car? I don’t think so.
As I said earlier this week week, the goal in my mind is to find the right balance between preservation and progress. Just as we shouldn’t be so quick to erase our architectural history, we shouldn’t be so quick to erase our way of life.
But at the same time, it’s important to remain open minded to what’s coming. I’m optimistic about the future. Change can be a great thing, even if it may feel as uncomfortable as riding an escalator for the first time. Maybe you just need a bit of brandy to calm your nerves.