Fortunately, there is no building in Morris tall enough to need an elevator

Well, except for the grain silos, that is, but I don’t need to go in those. New York is a whole different story, though. This story about elevators is informative, because it tells you all about the construction and safety features, takes a tour of the Otis company, and even talks about the psychology of spacing oneself in a crowded elevator…but the part that will stick with you is the saga of poor Nicholas White, who was forgotten in a stuck elevator for 41 hours over one weekend — trapped in a small box for almost two days with absolutely nothing to do. I think I’d go insane.

Almost as painful: he was observed on time-lapse security cameras. Now you too can watch a man suffer extreme boredom and frustration. If this were a psychology experiment, it would never get past the review board, that’s for sure.

(via Kottke)


  1. Magnus says

    Actually there was an English documentary about 4 or 6 people volunteering for sensory deprivation for something like 24-48 hours. They got pretty bored and couldn’t wait for it to be over.

  2. CalGeorge says

    Proof that they should install restrooms in elevators.

    And vending machines.

    And bookstores.

  3. Sarcastro says

    I can’t believe he didn’t smoke a cigarette the whole time. It’s New York! They’d have had him out of there, and cited for ordinance violation, before he finished it.

  4. Holbach says

    I think you would survive longer in an elevator than in a grain silo as reports of asphyiation and being crushed to death have borne this out. Stay out of tall buildinds in Manhattan or Minneapolis, and silos, PZ!

  5. says

    The novel The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead takes a very nifty view of the whole business of elevators (and social rising). Highly recommended. (Not much biology in in though.)

  6. Falyne says

    Damn! Sucks to be that guy.

    I think there’s a profound difference between a *study*, where at least some part of you knows you’re not stuck forever, and this case, where no such comfort exists.

    I mean, seriously, the guy’s completely helpless in there, and he knew it. And even if you’re not intellectually aware of either how long humans can live without water or how long you’ve been in there, your lizard brain is screaming DRINK OR DIE!

    I’m a little annoyed at how unsympathetic the article turns towards the end. That’s a pretty freakin’ traumatic surprise of an experience, and combined with probably being pretty damn pissed at the screed-writing coworker, I’m not sure I’d come back to work anytime soon. Plus, if negligence by my company’s security had a very real possibility of leading to my entirely avoidable DEATH, you better believe I’d try and get recompense. And I’d find it entirely justifiable to do so.

  7. says

    Yes… “security cameras”. You’re right, it would never get past the review board.

    … it wouldn’t just come under the heading of “literature review” now… would it…?

  8. popeyemoon says

    @Sarcastro read the story,he did but he only had three cig’s left when he enter the elevator.

  9. says

    Being trapped, alone, for that long, I think I would started disassembling anything I could. I probably would have tried to pry the doors open with anything I could get loose, and destroyed the ceiling and gotten on top of the elevator at least once. I know anything like that is very dangerous, but by that point, I doubt I’d care.

  10. zer0 says

    I would think it would be against building code, in New York of all places, to not have an emergency phone in every elevator.

  11. PeteK says

    “Restroom? Groan-room, more like. White knuckles-hanging-onto-the bog-roll dispenser room…” Ben Elton

    Even installing a magazine or two, or a small chess set, would be cool…

  12. Julius says

    #4: Oh God, that’s happened to me. Well, not for four days, more like four minutes. And I had a mobile phone. Didn’t have phone numbers for anyone in the city I was in, but there’s always emergency services (no, someone heard me and somehow got the door open before I had to resort to that).

  13. Christopher tm says

    Man that sucks.

    The punch in the teeth is the “Out Of Order” sign put up at the end.

    I was stuck in an elevator once for about 45 minutes once. Totally freaked out by the end. 40+ hours and I think I’d be tearing my face off.

  14. says

    My stepfather is an Otis Elevator Mechanic and I know from stories that the way the dispatching system is set up is a quagmire of tedium that invariably gets unwanted weekend calls bounced around between mechanics for days on end. Ideally the dispatcher should have let the mechanics know that there was SOMEONE in the elevator (that usually results in fairly prompt service), but it’s still not the type of situation I’d want to be in.

  15. Carlie says

    I found this part of the article interesting:

    “In most elevators, at least in any built or installed since the early nineties, the door-close button doesn’t work. It is there mainly to make you think it works. (It does work if, say, a fireman needs to take control. But you need a key, and a fire, to do that.) Once you know this, it can be illuminating to watch people compulsively press the door-close button. That the door eventually closes reinforces their belief in the button’s power. It’s a little like prayer. Elevator design is rooted in deception–to disguise not only the bare fact of the box hanging by ropes but also the tethering of tenants to a system over which they have no command.”

    Even engineers seem to know that people like to feel in control when they’re not and design accordingly, so if engineers are so good at manipulation that way, why are so many of them so religious? Do they not see the similarities?

  16. Peter Ashby says

    Ah Carlie but they are designing/building things for the rest of us, and we are mere sheep. Being educated men (still largely a male preserve) their faith is of an altogether more sophisticated sort since those that still have one have had to reconcile it with or build walls between their logical training.

    Both grandfathers and my father were engineers, I did some genetic engineering so my father was reasonably happy even though it was biology ;-) He was not especially religious.

  17. kmarissa says

    “In most elevators, at least in any built or installed since the early nineties, the door-close button doesn’t work.”

    Hah. I KNEW it. Actually, I didn’t – I honestly thought they did “work”, but that it took so long to process that it became effectively no different from waiting for the door to close. I always used to think with frustration, “why do they put the door-close buttons on, if they’re going to take so long that you might as well have waited for the door to close automatically?”

    Now I realize I’ve been played for a fool.

    I also realize how ancient my apartment building elevators must be, as those buttons actually DO close the door immediately when pressed.

  18. SteveM says

    In most elevators, at least in any built or installed since the early nineties, the door-close button doesn’t work.

    I’m sure that is true in a lot of elevators, but I don’t believe it is true for all. I am aware of this “legend” and so I am always conscious of how long it takes the door to close after either the last floor button is pushed vs the door close button. And I have been in plenty of new elevators that the door does close (with very little delay) when the closedoor is pushed.

    Regardless, the even more curious button pushing behavior to watch is the elevator call buttons in the lobbies. Especially the ones that light up when they’ve been pushed. Watch how many people will still push it even when already lit. Like that will make the elevator come faster.

  19. Don't Panic says

    The article’s author at least slipped this little snark in:

    Once you know this, it can be illuminating to watch people compulsively press the door-close button. That the door eventually closes reinforces their belief in the button’s power. It’s a little like prayer.

  20. Don't Panic says

    In my defense, I wrote the comment pointing out the “It’s a little like prayer.” at the time of comment #15. It’s just that the meeting I was attending at the time distracted me from pushing the (post) button right away. Damn work always getting in the way of web surfing.

  21. biogeek says

    I was stuck in an elevator in one particularly memorable event. I was going to be a Hospital Volunteer. They had a bunch of wannabe volunteers come for an evening orientation. We toured the hospital, and needed to go up one floor. The majority of the people on the tour were little old ladies, so the tour guide said “Let’s just take the elevator, even though it’s only one floor.” Most of us fit, crammed in. A few (smarter than I) decided they could do the stairs and meet us there. They got there, and so did we, but the doors neglected to open.

    The alarm didn’t work.

    The phone didn’t work.

    Banging on the doors and screaming did. Sort of.

    There were 14 people in an elevator with a capacity for 12. After the first hour, we had a tall guy push out the door in the ceiling, so whenever the other elevator went past, we got a brief moment of fresh air, or at least moving air. Some of the nice little old ladies couldn’t stand for entire three and a half hours that it took to get someone out there, so they had to sit on the floor, which meant more of us pressed up against each other. I was wondering (seriously) how we were going to get medical treatment for one of them if they went into cardiac arrest or something equally dire (would we push them out the hole in the roof, and pass them over to the EMTs on the top of the elevator? o.O) . Luckily, no one had any heart attacks or strokes, and they eventually got someone there to pry the door open. Only took 3.5 hours. They were really nice, and had juices and snacks from the cafeteria for us, and statements to sign about our experience and treatment afterward (turns out 3.5 hours is long enough for lawyers to get involved in some way, even in the evening).

    We didn’t finish the tour.

    When I got home 40 minutes later, my clothes were still soaking wet from sweat, mostly mine, but probably from those pressed up against me for the entire time as well.

    The hospital was torn down 2 years later, and a new one built a few miles away.

    Makes all my other “trapped in an elevator” stories pretty lame, even those lasting over an hour at night with no cell phone (that was in an elevator I later found out had been bought *used* in the 1960s).

  22. OrchidGrowinMan says


    In real life I’m an engineer in the Human Interface field, and I love my work: Observing people interact with technology, figuring-out the psychology, and implementing designs to take that into account is both rewarding and a little scary/disappointing, but necessary and becoming more prevalent. Its unfortunate that 1) it’s not commonly taught in engineering curricula and 2) engineers tend to be more “Asberger-y” than the average person, so they need it more.

    The “multi-press” behaviour on elevator-call buttons is just one example of a digital function being misinterpreted in a world that is mostly analog. Crosswalk buttons for traffic lights have to be designed to withstand a lot of abuse: they get whacked, kicked and what-have-you, so they have to be robust (expensive) beyond just weather-resistant. Do you type hard when SIWOTI? Slam-down the telephone receiver when your Amway-Neighbor calls? To wake your computer, do you just nudge the mouse, or do you swirl it around on the desk? How hard do you press the volume button on the remote if you turn-on the TV and the kids left it too loud? Sometimes, people break things due to psychology.

    Some help comes from feedback: For example, if the crosswalk button lights a light (as some do), at least you know it’s “listening,” but what would happen if hitting it too hard, or hitting it again, turned-OFF the light (but didn’t cancel its function)? I bet that would result in a lot fewer repairs! There’s a lot that goes into good design besides functionality, and there are lots of examples where all that makes a design bad is a lack of psychological manipulation. Donald Norman’s 1988 book “The Design of Everyday Things” started a movement, one manifestation of which was the web site “” Have a look: Elevators, computers, faucets, door-handles and signage figure prominently.

    Because human minds ARE so illogical, we have no incentive to ever build an “Artificial Intelligence” that mimics one (except maybe to model human foibles — sorry sci-fi writers everywhere): there is simply no practical value to a machine with psychology: anger, religiosity, habit, hubris, avarice and all the rest are not features anybody would pay extra for.

  23. Art says

    Many, but not all, elevators have a small hatch in the roof above the false ceiling that holds the lights. This is typically held closed from the outside by a small barrel bolt that is easily forced with a swift kick or shove. You will need to get up on the hand rails to bet leverage for these maneuvers.

    Once forced you have access to the top of the elevator. This can be a dangerous place. Particularly if you don’t have a light, it is typically rather dark, and your unfamiliar. Everyone should have a small flashlight and pocket knife on them. You could fall down the shaft or get trapped between a wall and a moving car. Stay away from the edges and any moving parts. In some designs you could get pulled into a cable sheave or crushed if the car moves suddenly and there can be some risk of shock or electrocution if the electrical system was not properly maintained.

    That warning out of the way be assured that elevator mechanics ride on the top of elevators regularly and you don’t need any super powers to survive. If the elevator starts to move it isn’t stuck so pop down the hatch and get on with life. If it is, and your lucky, you may find a set of switches that will allow you to control the elevator from on top. Using these I was able to get the elevator to the next floor where the door opened. Down the hatch and out I was free. I was only stuck twenty minutes or so.

    At the very least it was something of an adventure. Something to help fill the possible forty hours waiting.

    In the end this is a somewhat hazardous option with a chance of self-rescue. It is entirely your call and any benefit or injury is yours alone to bear but it is an option most people don’t know about. Worse case, trapped in a stuck elevator in a burning building, I would strike out boldly to alter my fate. But then again, just bored for fifteen minutes, was enough to get me looking above the false ceiling for options.

  24. Blondin says

    I was an office equipment tech for Olivetti some years ago. Back in the 80’s they came out with “daisy wheel” typewriters. The big difference between them and their predecessors was that they had a whole mess of little black chips driving motors and solenoids for each function as opposed to one big motor with a whole mess of cleverly engineered cams and clutches and linkages. So the keys on the new typewriters were just little switches with no mechanical connection to the print head transport, hammer solenoid, line-feed motor, ribbon drive, etc. On later models they even replaced the platen knobs with rotary switches that you twisted forward or back to drive the platen.

    Oh, the fun we had. Trying to convince users that pressing a key or twisting a knob harder would not make anything work better or harder or faster.

    On one occasion a customer insisted that her keyboard just didn’t “feel right” anymore. The tech tried to reason with her but she insisted that something had to be done. So he changed a circuit board and asked her to try it again. Ah, much better! About every 6 or 8 months she would put in a call saying her keyboard was seizing up again and we’d send out the same tech to swap one perfectly good circuit board for another.

  25. Hena says

    Hey OrchidGrowinMan,

    Im really interested in preventative engineering. Is there any way i can get in touch with you about your field or get more information about what you do. It sounds so interesting :) btw my email is henaelahi”at”

  26. Sili says

    Re: Door-closing buttons. I vaguely recall an example of bad design in that regard from Danish railway stations.

    The doors there are rather slow so people kept pushing the button that looked like it’d close them – too bad it actually served to keep the door open in order to help slowpokes. Very very stupid – just goes to show the making pictograms is nowhere near as easy at it sounds.

    Were it I stuck, I s’pose I’d try to recall the first song of the Iliad since I did know that by heart at one point. Maybe try reconstructing Euclid’s proof of Pythagoras. When that failed I guess I’d try singing (which I can’t).

    Sadly, I’m not Flashman, so recollecting every woman I’d ever had sex with, wouldn’t really be all that helpful.

  27. Sarcastro says

    @Sarcastro read the story,he did but he only had three cig’s left when he enter the elevator.

    What I get for not reading the whole thing.

  28. wazza says

    I’ve always felt it was quite telling that the Otis elevator company offices here in Wellington are in a two-storey building.

  29. antaresrichard says

    Do you suppose at one point he imagined himself Earl Holliman stuck in a deserted town with Rod Serling commenting in the background?

  30. arachnophilia says

    last year, my paleo class was on the third floor. we learned very quickly not to take the elevators in that building, because they routinely got stuck between floors.

    first couple of week, people missed class because they got stuck in the elevator. i think the prof (whose office was also on the third floor) mentioned he got stuck once for about two hours.

    so yeah. i’m all in favor of stairs. or escalators for the lazy — at least when those break, they just turn into stairs.

  31. Jon H says

    I’ve been up in that Otis test tower. My dad worked for them, and took me up to the top machine room when I was in high school. It was pretty cool.

    Big damn motors up there.