Initially, elevators were manual. The doors had to be opened and closed by passengers or elevator operators, a feature that came with a number of associated safety risks. The elevators we use today have automatic doors thanks to Alexander Miles, an African American inventor who received a patent for his invention in 1887, according to BlackPast. 

Alexander Miles was born in 1838 in Duluth, Minnesota. Before his work on elevator door mechanisms, Alexander Miles found success as a barber and real estate developer. With a $500,000 net worth, he was recognized as the wealthiest Black man in Minnesota in the local Minneapolis paper Star Tribune— opening a real estate office, building a brownstone, formulating hair products, and becoming the first Black member of Duluth Chamber of Commerce. 

The ups and downs of business is what led to Alexander Miles’ most notable accomplishment. Inspired by an elevator ride with his daughter in which the doors remained open as the car traveled through the shaft, Miles designed a flexible elastic belt to attach to the elevator doors, allowing them to close automatically when the car is in motion. 

Ever the entrepreneur, after the elevator belt took off, Alexander Miles moved his family to Chicago where he founded the United Brotherhood Insurance Society, according to My Black History. The mission of the organization was to eliminate discriminatory practices of insurance companies who often excluded or denied coverage to Black people. He eventually settled in Seattle, Washington where he passed away in 1905.

As of 2016, a few of Alexander Miles’ properties and his residence were still standing in Duluth and his mechanism is still used in elevator design today. My Black History reveals the upgrade Miles made to the elevator system earned him a place in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007