Lesson: Use drama to persuade the skeptical
The most innocuous details cause epochal events. A single shot heard round the world started a revolution, a falling apple inspired a new theory, and the operations of a bicycle solved a thousand-year riddle: Can man ever fly? And it was a ratchet that made skyscrapers possible. But like all important but revolutionary new creations, it takes convincing the public of its utility, and that requires the ability to pitch. The rebel leaders of America’s revolution pitched their fellow colonials, and the French, to help fight the mightiest military force on the planet. Newton spent his life proving his theories to others. The Wright Brothers toured Europe—they were wholly rejected in America—in order to pitch their airplane. And in that vein was a tinkerer turned pitchman named Elisha Otis.
It was the 1850s, and Otis had solved numerous little problems in his life’s work as a tinkerer. This time, he had solved the era’s largest engineering problem: Safe elevators. Although it was the 1850s, the technology for getting a load of cargo from the ground to an elevated height was still rudimentary at best. Not much had changed since old Archimedes lifted a heavy load of goods before a stunned Greek audience.
In Otis’ time, elevators used a simple pulley system, and a lot of praying. Were the cable to snap, nothing but air stood between the contents and the ground. His solution was elegant in its simplicity. He attached to the bottom of the elevator platform a powerful spring. To the spring was attached a ratchet bar that would pop out automatically were the platform to drop due to a broken cable.
A terrified people are a skeptical people. No one wanted to believe this was safe enough to use. They preferred the old ways which meant they preferred to avoid elevators whenever possible.
Otis decided to persuade the public and so he went to a man renowned for his dramatic salesman abilities: P.T. Barnum. Together Otis and Barnum hatched a plan to demonstrate to the world the practicality of the new invention. Advertised by Barnum as a secret death-defying creation to astonish and terrify!
People arrived to the presentation in droves.
In the middle of a convention hall, Otis and Barnum had set up an elevator platform. When people were well situated in their seats, the lights dimmed and Otis walked solemnly to the stage. He faced the audience and bowed as if saying goodbye. He stepped onto the platform and an assistant pulled the lever that initiated the ascent. Once aloft dozens of feet in the air, Otis looked down below into the crowd. Suddenly, he showed them a saber they had not previously noticed. With a practiced flourish he slashed the rope that help him in mid-air.
The audience screamed in horror. Women fainted. Men averted their eyes. The ratchet released. Otis fell but for a solitary second. The elevator stopped.
Walking to the edge of the platform, he once again looked down on the crowd and said, “All safe ladies and gentleman. All safe.”
The world’s first elevator pitch. He had successfully persuaded a nation on the power of the simple invention. A whole new confidence in building occurred. In Paris it was used to erect the Eiffel Tower, in America the Chrysler building. Soon, due to so small a thing as a ratchet—and a well executed pitch—the skyscraper was born.