Interesting Facts about Alexander Miles


Have you been on an elevator? Of course, you have. There was a time when someone had to manually open and close elevator doors. This was someone’s job. This was a huge problem in the past. Accidents happen frequently when elevator operators were off duty and not working. There are many documented cases where people fell down unattended elevator shafts. Alexander Miles change that. His impact is still felt today.

Why is Alexander Miles important?

Alexander Miles was an inventor born in the United States. He’s best known for patenting his design for improving elevator doors that automatically open and close. His patent made experiences with elevators safer by removing the need to manually open and close the doors. The U.S. Patent #371,207 was issued on October 11, 1887.

A page from U.S. Patent #371,207
A page from U.S. Patent #371,207

Where was he born?

Alexander Miles was born in Duluth, Minnesota in 1838. Minnesota, a territory at this time, eventually became a state in 1858. Alexander moved from Duluth as a young man in his 20s. His last home and resting place is in Seattle.

Did Alexander Miles marry anyone?

Yes, he married Candace J. (Shedd) Dunlap. Candace, a widow with two kids, married Miles in 1870. Candace Shedd grew up in New York City where she was born.

Did he have kids?

Yes, he had one daughter named Grace. She was born in 1876. 1876 was the 100th anniversary of The Declaration of Independence. There was a very contentious election that year. I’m curious about what Alexander Miles’ thoughts were for him, his wife, and his children.

Did Alexander Miles go to school?

No, he didn’t go to school. Miles started life as a slave. Not many slaves were given access to education during this time. The lack of formal education did not impede his ability to think. He was very smart. We still feel the impact of his work to this day. You can’t say this for many people in the world.

What was it like living in Duluth during his time?

There’s a documentary named Lost Duluth. The film focuses on the time when Miles lived. Duluth had a lot of growth before this period and experience a decline after this. I believe this factored into Alexander’s decision to leave.

How did his invention work?

Miles attached 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.

NIHF Inductee Alexander Miles and Elevator History

Did he invent anything else?

Yes, he started making hair care products. Alexander was always passionate about invention. Unfortunately, there isn’t a list of the hair care products he invented. I would like to see this list if possible.

What else did Miles create outside of his invention?

When Alexander Miles moved to Chicago he saw a problem. Black business owners like himself could not get insurance. He created The United Brotherhood in response. That is a very interesting and proactive way to deal with a problem. You create a solution to it.

The goal of the United Brotherhood was to insure black business owners. This is very important as a business owner. The ability to gain insurance is huge. Insurance can provide peace of mind and change how you operate the business. There were much more threats to business during the 1860s and 70s than today. One of them is fire. If you want fire insurance and you’re willing to pay for it, you should not be denied insurance for any reason.

Alexander Miles history of United Brotherhood Insurance company -
Image via

Why did companies deny insurance to black business owners? It’s not as straightforward as insurance companies saying no when a business requests this service. The cost of insurance to black businesses was pretty prohibitive. Miles and his partners offered a similar product as the insurance companies at a cheaper price.

The United Brotherhood adjusted the price of insurance correctly. I couldn’t find much about The United Brotherhood. However, I didn’t come across any articles that stated they went under due to poorly adjusted insurance prices.

At a later stage in life

Many people believe Miles was the wealthiest black person in the Pacific Northwest. Recessions negatively impacted his investments. He lost a lot of his wealth during this period. He moved to Seattle, Washington. He worked as a barber while he lived in Seattle.

Was his work recognized?

Yes, Alexander Miles was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007. He is recognized along with other great inventors. His work is amazing. Miles is one of my favorite inventors of all time.

Where can I learn about more black inventors?

I recommend this book. There are a lot of great stories and insights that are gained by reading this one.

A book by Louis Haber
Image pulled from Amazon

Additional Resources

2 thoughts on “Interesting Facts about Alexander Miles”

  1. Well known across the world for his excellent guitar playing skills, Miles Davis was a black American jazz musician from 1901 to 1991. His music continues to inspire musicians and music lovers all over the world. In fact, he is considered to be on of the greatest jazz legends of all time. In this article, we will be looking at some interesting facts about him.

    1. Yes, Miles Davis was a jazz legend. I will write an article on him in the future. Please let me know if you would like to collaborate on this post. Thanks.

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