– Courtesy of Wikipedia

Alexander Miles was an African-American inventor who was best known for being awarded a patent for an automatically opening and closing elevator door design in 1887.(U.S. Patent 371,207) Contrary to many sources, Miles was not the original inventor of this device. In 1874, 13 years before Miles’ patent was awarded, John W. Meaker was awarded U.S. Patent 147,853 for the invention of the first automatic elevator door system.


Alexander Miles was born in Ohio in January 1837. He moved to Waukesha, Wisconsin where he earned a living as a barber in the 1860s. After a move to Winona, Minnesota in 1870, he met his wife, Candace J. Dunlap, a white woman born in New York City in 1834. Together they had a daughter named Grace who was born in April 1879. Shortly after her birth, the family relocated to Duluth, Minnesota.

While in Duluth, Alexander operated a barbershop in the four-story St. Louis Hotel and purchased a real estate office. His wife found work as a dress maker. Miles became the first black member of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce. In 1884, Miles built a three-story brownstone building at 19 West Superior Street in Duluth. This area became known as the Miles Block. It was at this time that Miles was inspired to work on elevator door mechanisms.

The 1880s brought taller buildings to Duluth including the six-story Duluth National Bank. Having a young daughter, Miles took notice to the obvious dangers associated with an elevator shaft door carelessly left ajar. This led him to draft his design for automatically opening and closing elevator doors and apply for a patent. Miles began building a model for his automatic elevator-door mechanism in Duluth in about February 1887, and a United States Patent was issued on October 11, 1887. Miles’ design came 13 years after John W. Meaker’s initial 1873 invention of modern automatic elevator doors. See Elevator#History

In 1890, Miles was referred to as a “well known capitalist” and was quoted as saying, “The two greatest flour centers of the future will be Buffalo [NY] and Duluth”.

In 1896, Alexander was serving as president of the Colored Republican Club of Duluth. At that time, almost all blacks in Duluth and around the country were Republican. Miles was a supporter of the newly formed United Brotherhood Fraternity in 1899.

By 1900, Alexander, Candace, and Grace had moved to Chicago. In Chicago, Alexander created an insurance agency with the goal of eliminating discriminatory treatment of blacks. In his own words, Miles stated that insurance companies “persist in holding out discriminative rates to these colored people…”. In 1900, it was believed that Alexander Miles was the “wealthiest colored man in the Northwest.”

Miles sold his Duluth building in 1901 for $28,000 and it sold again in 1907 for $50,000.

Alexander Miles died sometime after 1905 and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007.

– image: inventors.about.com