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What Is a Paternoster?

By Christian Petersen
Updated May 17, 2024
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A paternoster is a type of elevator, consisting of a series of compartments, connected together, that continuously rotate in a loop. The compartments are open, and the paternoster is designed so that as the compartments pass each floor of a building, they briefly line up with an opening that allows passengers to enter or exit the compartments. Where a paternoster is installed, each floor will have two openings, one for compartments going up and another for compartments going down. In a way, it combines the concepts of an escalator and an elevator.

Also known as a cyclic elevator, the paternoster was first built by a British engineer in London toward the end of the 19th century. This type of elevator was popular at one time because it allowed for more efficient transport of passengers than a typical elevator, even though each compartment was usually rather small and only capable of accommodating two people. The continuous looping of multiple compartments meant that if you missed one compartment, you only had to wait a few seconds for the next one instead of having a much longer wait for a traditional elevator car, which might take as long as several minutes, depending on how far it had to travel and the number of stops it made on the way.

This type of elevator had other advantages over traditional elevators. The open compartments meant no buttons needed to be pushed for opening or closing doors. No buttons for certain floors were required, as the occupants merely stepped off the paternoster when their desired destination was reached. The compartments moved rather slowly so that passengers had time to step on and off, but even though they moved more slowly than a typical elevator, the time saved by the paternoster's other design features made traveling between floors much faster on the average.

Safety issues meant that the paternoster never attained the popularity of traditional elevators, however. The open compartments could be dangerous, as people could be caught between the compartment and the floors of the building. An inexperienced paternoster user often had difficulty adjusting to its use at first, and many people were injured. Elderly, disabled, and very young passengers were most often those who experienced difficulty. Deaths sometimes occurred as people were crushed by the moving compartments, and today, while there are still some working paternosters in service, mostly in Europe, many have been taken out of service or replaced by traditional elevators.

About Mechanics is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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