After being forced to go in just two directions, up and down, for more than a century, escalators are finally getting a little freedom. A newly invented moving staircase will be able to twist, bend, spiral and even snake around sharp corners.
The Levytator – named for its inventor, Jack Levy, professor of mechanical engineering at London's City University – consists of curved modules like those used in sushi restaurant conveyor belts.
A YouTube film showing a working model went viral following its release, scoring almost 250,000 hits. Among those it has attracted are architects and developers keen to put it into new buildings.
Sweeping Levytator arcs could appear in shopping centres and public buildings in as little as 18 months, said David Chan, of City University. A science museum could even turn its escalators into a DNA-like double helix, the university suggested.
One private finance company said the invention had clinched crucial funding for a still-secret property development worth several hundred million pounds. "The question now is whether to buy 16 or 32 of them," said Tony Clark of Bond Asian Ventures (UK).
Professor Levy said he got the idea after a lifetime travelling on the London Underground. "I wondered why all the escalators had to be straight," he said. "Sometimes it's really convenient to go round a corner."
In conventional escalators, the steps are turned upside down and looped underneath the staircase to take them back to the start. So an "up" escalator and a "down" escalator would have two separate loops, typically costing £100,000 each.
But in the Levytator, when the steps reach the top, they turn left or right under the floor until they get to the start of the down flight, forming a single closed loop. This means that fewer steps are required, reducing the cost.
And since maintenance can all be done from above, it won't take weeks or months to rebuild them. "Traditional escalators developed topsy-turvy, but we're starting with a clean sheet of paper," said Professor Levy. However, if one side has a fault, both have to be taken out of service and they can't run in the same direction.
He believes the Levytator will be safer than other models since it won't have a gap between the stairs and the walls into which people and things can become jammed, he said. "Worldwide, there are 10,000 accidents on escalators every year, including several deaths. On two occasions I've seen people piling up at the bottom of an escalator and had to press the emergency stop button."
The first working escalators were invented in the US in 1896, and the first in Britain was installed at Harrods in Knightsbridge in 1898.
London Underground experimented with a spiral escalator in 1906 at Holloway Road station but it was withdrawn for safety reasons. A Japanese company has sold a curved escalator since the mid-1980s, though it lacks the flexibility of the UK design.
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