Cover Art by Jason Hargrove.
The first child labor law passes in Congress. In a small town in the Vermont Hills, a 32-year-old failure attends his beloved wife’s funeral. He embraces his 8-year-old boy with one arm, and with the other he clutches his infant son.
Having a knack for building and fixing things, he had tried to become a carpenter, but his poor health and inability to sustain physical labor sent him packing. He built a gristmill once, but couldn’t turn a profit. With the last of his finances he converted his business into a sawmill, but couldn’t get any customers. So here he was, burying his beautiful wife and mother of his children – a young widower with a bad back and two hungry mouths to feed.
But, he is a father. A father has no time for wallowing in grief, no time for mourning, and no pride to hide behind – just two boys who depend on him. He stands tall despite his weak back and gets to work repairing wagons to put bread on the table.
Isaac Singer patents the sewing machine, and our poor father is once again looking for work having failed at still more businesses. He has worked as a doll maker, mechanic, and bedstead maker. Ever the tinkerer, he has survived in the labor industry despite his poor health by inventing and patenting an automatic lathe, a turbine water wheel, and a robotic turner. The latter can make more bedsteads per day than four skilled men can combined.
Having finally tasted some success, he’s invested his earnings into his newest business designing safety brakes for steam trains. Its a great idea, profitable, and easy for him. He is promptly put out of business when the local stream he relied on for power is rerouted to the city’s main water supply. Yet another disaster.
What little pride the father has accumulated washes away with the rerouted stream, and he is forced to accept a mechanics position in a bedstead company once more. He is told to design and renovate a new factory space for the company (a task eerily reminiscent of the mills that had ruined him three times already). Little does he know, this heartbreaking assignment will forever alter the course of human civilization.
Ohio passes the strictest child labor laws in the country. Our man has begun his work for the company turning the sawmill into a bedstead factory and is faced with a daunting challenge. With a bad back, two sons, and no finances for them to inherit he is ordered to use an industrial pulley hoist and old, tattered ropes to move thousands of pounds of equipment to the top floor of the new factory. Unwilling to risk orphaning or killing his sons but unable to turn down the job, he desperately sets his mind to work on a solution.
The boys are healthy, intelligent, hard workers but unable to head off to their own careers or learn other trades due to the child labor laws passed the year they’d lost their mother. Instead, they help their father with his work and learn his trades. The eldest is quietly allowed to earn full-time pay working for his father. He is a teenager now, with a strong back and an inherited knack for tinkering.
Over breakfast, they read the morning newspaper and learn of a hoist accident that killed four men in another factory just a few miles away. The rest of the meal is eaten in silence.
Later, while clearing debris from the factory floor, the now 41-year-old, increasingly sickly father comes up with an idea. He conceives of a vertical shaft like those that had existed since ancient Greece, but with two additional vertical posts lined with iron teeth. He thinks back to his early days repairing wagons.
Together, father and sons construct a wooden crossbar with a wound wagon spring attached to iron extensions so that if the decaying ropes snap, the spring will push the extensions out and lock with the iron teeth, preventing a deadly free fall.
Confident in their invention, they safely and successfully move all of the equipment to the third floor of the factory in just one day. They return home, alive and well. The eldest tosses the youngest’s hair, and their father quietly cherishes their smiles.
No patents are filed, no plans are hatched. Being alive, being together, and keeping their livelihood is all they care about.
Soon, the owner of the neighboring factory (whose recent accident made all the papers) learns of their success and commissions them to construct the same device for him. The father accepts, and the family builds another spare parts safety mechanism in exchange for what would today be a mere $300.
Two strong men watch as their father is gently lowered into the ground, one of hundreds of lives claimed by the diphtheria epidemic of that year. Eyes watering, they stand proud, surrounded by friends, associates, and new families. They know their father loved them more than life itself. They appreciate what their father has done for them – the dreams he’s sacrificed, the losses he’s suffered, and the example he has set. The older man puts his arm around the younger and stands tall.
The men return to their factory and sort through their father’s office. Receipts for a desk, a second-hand lathe, scrap iron and various materials. Tears fall on an old advertisement they find in a drawer.
“Twelve men killed in this city within four years with the old-kind, and not one killed or hurt with Otis’…” it reads.
The young men laugh at the crowd’s reaction in a picture from an old article recounting the 1854 World’s Fair and their father’s “daring” stunt. They can still hear his voice shouting over the shrill screams of the men below, “All safe gentlemen, all safe!” after his knife cut the only rope to the platform on which he stood two stories up. The applause that had followed was deafening.
From the window, they can see their new city. Half finished towers, steel frames that seem to scrape the sky itself, thousands of people moving to a patch of land that just a few years ago could house just a few hundred. They wish he could see just one finished. A new era in human history is beginning all around them, and yet to them it feels like just yesterday they were helping their father build the first ever elevator safety brake on an empty factory floor.
Staring at a small patent in a plain frame on the office wall, they agree to carry on their father’s legacy.
As the young men exit, they pause in silence at to read the sign above the door:
“Otis Elevator Company
Elisha Otis & Sons”