Imagine this. Actually, no need to imagine. Just recall the last time this happened to you.
You’re standing in front of an elevator. You press the call button. You step back and wait patiently. Nothing happens. I did press it, right? You press it again and continue waiting, avoiding eye contact so as not to make things awkward with the growing crowd around you. Nothing. You go ahead and press the call buttons for all the elevators. Seriously, not one? Three scenarios usually play out here. A). It comes but not in the direction you want to go. B). It comes but it’s full. C). It doesn’t seem like it’s ever going to come. The outcome? Either wait some more or take the stairs.
Well wait in frustration no more, nomads. How about an elevator with no annoying buttons to push and that runs continuously with the opportunity to go in either direction every few seconds? It may sound like some kind of futuristic dream but this is old technology. We’re talking 1800s old. And it’s called a paternoster.
A paternoster is a chain elevator of open compartments that moves continuously in a loop. That means no doors, no stopping in between floors, no need to call the elevator. You simply step into the moving elevator in the direction you want to go and step out when you reach your desired floor. Did I mention, all while the elevator is still moving?!
While a prototype may have been built and used in research prior, the first paternoster is largely credited to the engineering firm of J & E Hall who built a “cyclic elevator” in 1884 in Dartford, England. This style of quick people moving subsequently became popular in the UK and in continental Europe.
Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. This all sounds kinda dangerous. And you’d be right. It certainly can be, especially for children, people with disabilities and the elderly. People have been seriously injured and even killed using them. That’s why many countries have banned the new installation of paternosters and decommissioned many existing ones. Of the few that remain in use today, even fewer still are accessible to the public. So I was delighted when a friend told us about one we could visit at the Stuttgart City Hall during our travels in Germany.
The name paternoster comes from the Latin words for “Our Father”, the first two words of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. And despite fitting in nicely with all the safety concerns, no, it isn’t because you should say a little prayer each time you get on one. It is rather in reference to its resemblance to rosary beads.
I do have to say that using one for the first time is kind of nerve-wracking. First you have to wait for a free compartment and then time your entry. While larger ones do exist, the compartments are generally made to accommodate two people. Anymore than that and all of you getting off in time becomes somewhat of an issue.
Once in, you go past the various floors getting a few second snapshot as to what’s happening on each one of them. When you get to the final floor at either the top or bottom, you will see warning signs on the wall of the shaft as you approach telling you to get off.
However, don’t worry if you don’t. Contrary to popular belief, the compartment doesn’t turn upside down to go around the other side, it rather sits in an upright position as it is pulled by the chain to the other side of the elevator shaft. That said, apart from the risk of tripping or falling getting in and out of the compartment, this is the part that has greatest potential for things to go wrong.
During the changeover, the chain is completely exposed and there is nothing stopping little fingers or hair or anything else getting caught in it. Basically, stand well clear of it and children should be accompanied at all times. Another thing to keep in mind if you are riding during changeover is to remain perfectly still. Shifting your weight from one position to the other may cause an imbalance that stops the elevator. And, believe me, you don’t want to be stuck up (or down) there. In the lightless one in Stuttgart, you are in complete darkness in between floors and it’s scary as hell as you switch sides with all the sound effects of the clunky chain and the slight rocking of the compartment to boot.
Do as I did and grab a friend to link arms with and ride the first one out together. While all of this sounds rather grim, the number of incidents in the scheme of things is relatively low and provided you are able bodied and use your common sense, you’re almost guaranteed of still having all your limbs as you jump out.
Would I do it again? Absolutely. While it is such a simple concept, there is something so thrilling about it. Just ask our German friend, Katha. I dragged her back there a second time for another quick few rounds!
What about you? Have you ridden a paternoster? If not, would you?