Going Up? The Paternoster Principle

The first job I ever had was working for a large company, which had a network of offices, both in the UK and internationally.  My job was based in their corporate HQ close to London, in an expansive building, spread over seven floors, and which housed everyone from the lowliest office boy––me––to the CEO of the entire organisation, plus an entire staff in between.

From the viewpoint of my junior position, the chain of command in the company could not have been more clear; as simple a hierarchy of progression as were the floors of the building itself.  And, observed, from an attitude of naïve optimism, just as easily scalable.

Except, there was a problem.  The building wasn’t that easy to scale.  And there was a reason for this.  The building had a dark secret lying at its very heart.  It employed a paternoster lift system.

For anyone that has not encountered a paternoster lift, it is basically a man-sized continuously moving open box.  Whereas conventional lifts stop at each floor to give passengers time to either get on or get off, the paternoster does not: it keeps on moving.  If the paternoster were a horse, it would be a mustang, defying all attempts to break it.

My first attempts to enter the paternoster lift involved much hesitation, several false starts, an eventual inglorious stumble, and severely barked shins.  Once in, getting out was a similar leap of faith.

There must be a design fault in the mechanism?  It shouldn’t be this difficult and, frankly, downright scary, to negotiate three floors.  And yet colleagues seemed to manage the task without obvious problem.  I watched them; I studied their technique; and, like every good office junior, I learned from them.

By day two, I could jump on and off the lift without making myself look a complete fool; by the end of the first week, I could perform the same feat whilst carrying two cups of coffee, without spillage.  Result.  I was obviously displaying management potential; fast-track to the 7th floor.


Paternoster Principle: master a basic skill and you’ll be stuck performing it for the rest of your life.

As a matter of record: the paternoster lift in my old company was decommissioned and boarded up in 2001.  The entire site, including the lift, was bulldozed in 2012.  Safety fears regarding the paternoster have meant that most working models have gone the same way.  However, like with so many similar things, which are either dangerous, badly designed, or both, the paternoster has its enthusiasts.

You just can’t keep a good lift down.

© Simon Turner-Tree


Sometimes Simon Turner-Tree doesn’t know whether he’s coming or going.

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