Alexander Miles was an African-American inventor best known for receiving a patent for an elevator door that opened and closed mechanically in 1887. Contrary to widespread belief, Miles was not the inventor of this apparatus.
John W. Meaker was granted U.S. Patent 147,853 in 1874, thirteen years before Miles’ patent was issued, for inventing the first automatic elevator door mechanism.
Alexander Miles was born in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1838. In the 1860s, he went to Waukesha, Wisconsin, where he worked as a barber. After relocating to Winona, Minnesota in 1870, he met Candace J. Dunlap, a white woman who was born in New York City in 1834. In April 1879, they gave birth to a daughter named Grace. Following her birth, the family moved to Duluth, Minnesota.
Alexander ran a barbershop in the four-story St. Louis Hotel and acquired a real estate agency in Duluth. His wife obtained employment as a dressmaker. Miles was the first person of color to join the Duluth Chamber of Commerce. Miles constructed a three-story brownstone structure at 19 West Superior Street in Duluth in 1884. This location gained the name Miles Block. Miles was inspired to begin working on elevator door mechanics at this time.
Alexander Miles, while travelling in an elevator with his little daughter, observed the danger posed by an elevator shaft door left carelessly ajar. This prompted him to write his idea for elevator doors that automatically open and close and file for a patent. When an elevator arrived or departed a specific floor, the doors would automatically open or close.
Previously, both the shaft and elevator doors had to be opened and closed manually by either the elevator operator or the passengers, considerably increasing the risks associated with operating an elevator.
Miles affixed a flexible belt to the elevator cage, which, when in contact with drums positioned along the elevator shaft just above and below the floors, enabled the elevator shaft doors to open and close at the appropriate moments. Using a set of levers and rollers, the elevator doors were automated.
Miles experimented with the manufacture of hair products before to working in elevator engineering. The automatic opening and closing of elevator and elevator shaft doors is a standard feature thanks to his elevator patent, which continues to impact modern designs.
Alexander, Candace, and Grace had relocated to Chicago by the year 1900. Alexander founded an insurance agency in Chicago with the intention of eradicating biased treatment of blacks. In his own words, Miles noted that insurance firms “continue to charge these people of color discriminatory premiums…” In 1900, Alexander Miles was regarded to be the “wealthiest black man in the Pacific Northwest.”
After his death in 1905, Alexander Miles was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007.