top of page

Alexander Miles—Innovator and Businessman

This article is the first in a three-part series that celebrates Black History Month. These articles highlight the contributions of individual African Americans in the history of the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction industries.

A man posing for a portrait.
Alexander Miles, 1895—Source: Duluth Public Library archives

Alexander Miles (1938-1918)

African American inventor and businessman Alexander Miles is best known for his contribution which made elevator use safer and more efficient.

Elevator Design Improvement

In 1887, Miles patented an innovative electric mechanism to open and close elevator doors automatically. The invention was inspired by Miles’ observation of manually operated doors—operated by passengers or door operators—and the potential hazards when the doors were not closed completely.

Miles’ design consisted of attaching a flexible belt to the elevator cage, and when the belt came into contact with drums positioned along the elevator shaft just above and below the floors, it allowed the elevator shaft doors to operate at the appropriate times. The elevator doors themselves were automated through a series of levers and rollers.

Early Life

Miles was born on May 18, 1839, in Circleville, Ohio. He would later move to Waukesha, Wisconsin, in his early adulthood to work as a barber in the 1860s.

In 1870, he married Candace J. Dunlap from New York City. After the birth of their daughter, Grace, Miles moved his family to Duluth, Minnesota.

Although there is no record of Miles ever attending college, we do know that he was a highly skilled barber, inventor, and businessman.

Later Life

Using the finances he earned from the barbershop, Miles started several businesses such as owning a barbershop in a St. Louis hotel, inventing haircare products, and founding the United Brotherhood—a life insurance company that would insure African Americans who were often denied coverage at that time.

His contribution to the elevator industry helped revolutionize the way we build and use elevators today. Miles died in 1918 and was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page