Tuesday, February 11, 2014

paternoster qui es in sheffield

You might recall my post about lifts from a few years back, and the embedded link to this fascinating New Yorker article on the same subject. I can't remember how the subject came up, but we were having a conversation at work the other day that touched on the concept of the paternoster lift, and occasioned some speculation over whether there were any still in operation anywhere, or whether health and safety considerations had seen them all replaced by more enclosed and less potentially limb-severing modes of inter-floor transportation.

Just to back up a bit, the paternoster lift is a series of open-fronted boxes attached to a chain mechanism that describe an endless loop up one side of a vertical shaft, around the top, and back down again (and around the bottom and back up again, and so on). It moves (albeit pretty slowly) continuously, so passengers just step on and off as required. I imagine there's a bit of practice required in order to master the timing, just as with stepping on and off escalators.

So there are a couple of obvious questions that occur to everyone at this point, and they are:
  • what happens if you stay on to the top (or the bottom)? Do you come back round upside down? Or some more severe variant like inside out, or something? The answer, reassuringly, is no (to both);
  • what happens if you leave some part of your anatomy hanging out of the front of the compartment, or trip on your way in or out and land half-in/half-out of the compartment? The answer is that in theory modern set-ups are required to have various failsafe arrangements involving infra-red beams, hinged sections of floor and the like which mitigate the risk of getting cut in half like the doctor out of Damien: Omen II. I'm not volunteering to test any of them, though.
As with the blue police box thing, you'd imagine locating a definitive list on the internet of the few remaining ones would be easier than it actually turns out to be, but it does appear that there are a few left in the UK, mainly, for some reason, at universities. I suppose maybe there was an overwhelming demand from the students for them to be retained just for their curiosity value and potential for amusing student pranks. There are also a few left in continental Europe, for instance in Prague, Hamburg and this rather magnificent one in Copenhagen.

The one at the Sheffield Arts Building is reputed to be the largest one in the world, though I'm not sure how reliable that claim is. Others in the UK can be found at Leicester University and the Albert Sloman Library at the University of Essex. The Leicester one is notable for featuring in this video dating from the very early days of the #neknominate craze back in May 2013, when just downing a perfectly normal pint of lager in vaguely amusing circumstances was deemed sufficiently "out there" to qualify. These days unless you're riding a horse through Tesco, drinking a pint of your own urine with live goldfish in it, or just killing yourself by necking a gallon of neat vodka, industrial valve cleaner or molten plutonium you may as well not bother.

Back to lift-related matters - the Wikipedia page claims that there have been 5 deaths in paternoster lifts between 1970 and 1993. Since the expectation is that these would be more dangerous than standard lifts, that seems quite low, although without some context in terms of deaths per passenger journey it's a bit meaningless. I've seen a statistic of 20-30 deaths in standard lifts per year in the USA, but most of these are maintenance staff rather than standard passengers, and therefore a large proportion weren't technically in the lift when they got killed.

Of course there is a sub-category of lift accidents involving genuine punters and not being in the lift, and that is the one involving people stepping into open lift shafts when the doors open at the wrong time. The most famous recent incident of this was when former racing driver Stirling Moss plummeted down the lift shaft in his own home, but there have been many others, plus a recent near miss at the Sochi Winter Olympics. In most of these cases my genuine sympathy is diluted by just a light splash of criticism: at least have a look before just stepping through the door, surely?

If the paternoster lift still seems a bit tame for you, and you demand a more exposed and dangerous way of travelling between floors, try the belt manlift as deployed at various factory facilities. You really don't want to be attempting to go "round the top" on this one, though.


Emma said...

They are indeed peculiar. With the ones at Essex there was a sign on the top floor 'Further travel not dangerous but not recommended'. I knew of one woman who evidently didn't quite believe the 'not dangerous' part and flung herself out from quite a height, breaking a leg. It's also best not to travel on them with too many others if you all want the same floor, as by the time the others have got off the lift will have travelled too far up and you'll have to go round again ...

electrichalibut said...

The Wikipedia page makes reference to the paternoster at Newcastle University being replaced after "a passenger undertaking an up-and-over journey became caught in the drive chain". Not sure how you would do that, and details are disappointingly vague. Sounds painful, though.

More people being decapitated in regular lifts in the Daily Mail only today, though.

Emma said...

Hmm, lovely. Despite some of the comments on the Mail article about how it couldn't happen in the UK, a Reading student died in a lift accident in Sibly Hall a few years ago. I think he might have been drunk, but it sounded pretty gross.


Unknown said...

I was at Newcastle university and I remember the incident. A French student died horribly going over the top. It shocked me terribly as I'd always been tempted to try it. What an unimaginably vile death