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Bios for Kids: Alexander Miles

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Going up? Every time you step into an elevator and watch those doors close, automatically think of this famous inventor: Alexander Miles.

Bios for Kids Alexander Miles

All About Alexander Miles

We tend to think of common objects always working the same way: computers, toasters, and elevators.

But behind each machine is an inventor.

Alexander Miles didn’t invent the elevator, but he did make them a whole lot safer.

Elevators are basically boxes that move up and down a vertical tunnel (called the elevator shaft).

When elevators were first in operation, they had doors you had to pull closed.

If you didn’t do this (or if the door stuck), you could fall out of the elevator and down the shaft.

Alexander Miles, an African-American inventor, witnessed the risks of these elevator doors and wondered if there was a better, safer way to operate them.

Bios for Kids Alexander Miles

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His Background

Alexander Miles was born in 1838 in Ohio to parents Michael and Mary Miles.

He soon moved to Duluth, Minnesota, and began working as a barber.

He must have been very good at cutting hair because he became quite successful!

During the 1860s, Miles operated a barbershop inside the four-story St. Louis Hotel, where he developed his own line of hair care products. 

He earned enough money to purchase his own real estate office.

In 1870 he married a widow named Candace Dunlap, a white woman who had two children of her own.

They went on to have a child together, a little girl named Grace.

Candace worked as a dressmaker, and Alexander expanded his businesses.

Bios for Kids Alexander Miles

His Famous Invention

Alexander is most widely known for this invention: elevator doors that automatically open and close.

He got the idea for the invention while riding elevators with his daughter Grace.

Knowing the danger of riding an elevator and potentially falling down the shaft, he brainstormed a way for his daughter and other passengers to stay safe.

He created doors that would automatically open and close at the correct times.

In 1887 he was granted a patent for his automatic doors.

This is how the invention worked:

He attached a flexible belt to the doors of the elevator (imagine a large rubber band).

Through a series of levers and rollers, the belt would wind and unwind at the correct places.

It would unwind to close the doors between floors; it would wind to open the door when the elevator came to the next floor.

Bios for Kids Alexander Miles

Remembering Alexander Miles

Though Alexander Miles is widely remembered for this invention, it is not his only achievement.

He was an esteemed businessman.

Not only did he work as a successful barber and owner of a real-estate firm, he started his own life insurance agency in Chicago.

He saw that white-owned insurance agencies did not offer people of color fair rates.

Miles wanted his business, the United Brotherhood, to be fair to all.

Alexander Miles broke barriers in business.

He was the first Black member of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce.

The city named a whole block of the city after him: the Miles Block.

By 1900, Alexander Miles was the wealthiest African-American man in America.

He died on May 7, 1918 in Seattle.

Bios for Kids Alexander Miles

Famous Inventor Alexander Miles

Over a hundred years later, elevators still have automatic doors and are safe to ride.

Thanks, Alexander Miles!

He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007.

This famous inventor made the world a little safer for all of us. 

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Works Cited

“10 Facts about Alexander Miles.” Fact File, 11 June 2016,

“Alexander Miles.” Alexander Miles: African American Inventor, Black History in America,

“Alexander Miles.” Lemelson, MIT,

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