On 11 October 1887, a highly skilled barber, inventor and businessman named Alexander Miles received a patent for a technology that would revolutionise the way we use high-rise buildings forever. His invention? Automatic elevator doors.
Though a seemingly small milestone in the history of technology, his innovative design made the use of elevators infinitely easier and safer, earning him a spot in the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
While best known for this nifty invention, Miles himself was also a marvel. A leading figure in the African-American community of Duluth, Missouri, Miles was a keen businessman who was once reputed to be the richest black man in the Midwest.
Here are 10 facts about inventor Alexander Miles.
1. He was born in Ohio in 1838
Alexander was born in Pickaway County, Ohio in 1838 to Michael and Mary Miles. Little is known of his early life, but it is thought he spent his formative years in Ohio before moving to Waukesha, Wisconsin in the late 1850s.
2. He made his early living as a barber
After moving to Wisconsin, Miles took up a career as a barber, a pursuit which would later earn him great wealth and renown. He moved again to Winona, Minnesota, where in 1864 he purchased the OK Barber Shop.
3. He married a widow named Candace J. Dunlap
While in Winona, Alexander met his future wife Candace J. Dunlap, a divorced white woman who owned a millinery shop in the city. Born in New York, Candace grew up in Indiana before moving to Winona with her first husband Samuel, with whom she already had two children.
She and Miles were soon married and began living together with her young daughter Alice. On 9 April 1876, Candace gave birth to the couple’s only child together, Grace.
4. He began inventing hair care products
While working as a barber, Alexander developed and manufactured a new hair care product which he called Tunisian Hair Dressing. He claimed the product was “for cleansing and beautifying the hair, arresting its falling off, and imparting to it a healthy and natural tone and color.”
With a penchant for inventing early on, in around 1871 he received his first patent for a hair-cleaning product called Cleansing Balm, and 12 years later he received his second for an improved hair tonic recipe.
5. He made his fortune in Duluth, Minnesota
Seeking new opportunity, in 1875 Alexander and his family moved to the up-and-coming city of Duluth, Minnesota. In his own words:
“I was in search of a place with which I could grow up. There were two or three other places at that time attracting attention, but it seemed to me that Duluth had the best prospects of all.”
He set up a successful barbershop on Superior Street, before leasing a space on the ground floor of the newly built 4-storey St Louis Hotel. After he opened the hotel’s Barbershop and Bath Rooms, a local newspaper referred to it as “the best shop, without an exception, in the state of Minnesota.”
6. He built his own multi-story building named Miles Block
With both his barbershop prowess and the success of his patented products, Miles became a wealthy and well-known figure in Duluth. Looking for a new venture, he then turned his attention to real estate and was soon inducted into the Duluth Chamber of Commerce, becoming its first black member.
In 1884, he commissioned the design and construction of a Romanesque Revival building, which he aptly named Miles Block. This striking structure featured ornate stone carvings, a striking brick facade and, perhaps most importantly, three stories.
7. People debate how he created his most famous invention
The exact path that brought Alexander Miles from hair tonics to the invention of the automatic elevator door is unclear. It would seem, however, that as he went up in the world (quite literally), Miles became more acquainted with high-rise buildings and the fatal flaw in how they were used.
Some state it was his journeys up and down the three floors of Miles Block that opened his eyes to these dangers, while others attribute a near-accident involving his young daughter and an elevator shaft.
8. He received a patent for his automatic elevator doors in 1887
Whatever the reason, Alexander had identified just how dangerous the elevators of the 19th century were. As they had to be opened manually, either by an operator or the passengers themselves, people were often at risk of plummeting down the shaft with horrific injury.
Miles’ design included a flexible belt attached to the elevator cage, with drums positioned on it to indicate if the elevator had reached a floor. When this occurred, the doors would automatically open and close by means of levers and rollers.
In 1887, Miles received the patent for his invention. Though John W. Meaker had patented a similar invention in 1874, it was Miles’ innovation that made the electric closing doors more widespread.
9. He was a champion of civil rights
Not only was Alexander an excellent barber and talented inventor, he was also a champion of civil rights and something of a local leader in the African American community of Duluth.
In 1899, he founded the United Brotherhood, an insurance company that insured black people who were often denied coverage by white companies.
10. He died in 1918 at the age of 80
On 7 May 1918, Miles passed away aged 80. In 2007, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, whose nominees were required to hold a US patent of significant contribution to US welfare.
He features there amongst the likes of Alexander Graham Bell, Nikola Tesla and Hedy Lamarr.