Summer 2017

Leftovers / Up, Up, and Around

The impersonal pleasures of the paternoster elevator

Joshua Bauchner

“Leftovers” is a column that investigates the cultural significance of detritus.


The paternoster elevator deserves its name, which derives from rosary beads, the Our Father being the first of the cycle of prayers the beads accompany. The mechanism consists of a set of open elevator cars pegged to a chain or belt, running continuously in two side-by-side shafts over wheels located in both the basement and attic. As a car passes the turnaround wheel, it remains upright, shifting horizontally to the other shaft before continuing its journey. In the paternoster lobby, this appears as twinned shafts, each with a car passing by in opposite directions. The usual tempo of 0.3 to 0.4 meters per second is slow enough to allow for comfortable ingress and egress and fast enough to ensure a waiting time of no more than ten seconds. When the car traveling in the direction you want to go is level with the landing, you grab a handle and step in.

Willibald Krain, Paternoster, circa 1928. Courtesy Stadtmuseum Berlin.

I first encountered the paternoster elevator during a recent stay in Vienna. Though Austria has only about a dozen remaining, it is part of the machine’s primary habitat, which otherwise includes Hungary, Slovakia, Czechia, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.1 While the device originated in London—it was first developed and patented in 1878 and then marketed as Hart’s Cyclic Elevator—it found its most receptive audience in Germany. There, it took root in Hamburg in 1885 and was a common component of that city’s massive commercial development around the turn of the century. In 1905, each of the city’s ninety-two paternoster installations delivered roughly 730 people each day to their floors, yielding over twenty million total rides for the year.2 From there, it spread across the country and came in many ways to be identified with it. Though new installations in the Federal Republic were prohibited after 1972, there remain over two hundred in service, and nearly all contemporary writing on the topic, in English and German, deals in some manner with the device’s relation to its adopted homeland.3

But is there anything specifically Germanic about the paternoster? Armchair sociology by enthusiasts and observers alike identifies the machine as an embodiment of the efficient and reliable Teutonic culture.4 There seems indeed to be some resonance between a stilted and impersonal office culture and its automatic people conveyor. Heinrich Böll deftly animates this in “Murke’s Collected Silences,” his 1958 satire of a particularly erudite version of this office culture, that of the radio broadcasting headquarters of a nameless West German city in the 1950s. “Every morning, as he entered the broadcasting headquarters,” Böll writes, “Murke submitted himself to an existential gymnastic exercise”—he rode the paternoster elevator through the attic. Struck always with the same angst that something would happen, he would arrive safely back at the second floor, “cheerful and composed,” ready for the sure-to-come inanities of the day. On this day, these include primarily slicing out the word “God” and splicing in the phrase “that higher Being Whom we revere” twenty-seven times in two half-hour recorded lectures on “the essence of art” by the particularly noxious Professor Bur-Malottke, who has recently shed the religious mentality gained in his 1945 conversion. While the paternoster disappears after the story’s opening gambit, its repetitive rhythm underlies, of course, the repetitive slicing and splicing that make up Murke’s workday, as well as the everyday and seasonal rituals of the radio station itself.

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