Sam Howzit / flickr Creative Commons

The idea of the escalator has been around a lot longer than a working model. Nathan Ames first patented “Revolving Stairs” in 1859, though he didn’t specify materials or have a practical use in mind. Even 30 years later when Leamon Souder patented what he called the “Moving Stairway or Elevator,” it never saw production.

It was an engineer named Jesse Reno that really got the idea moving. He designed the “endless conveyor belt,” which appeared as an amusement ride at Coney Island in...