The staircase is one of the oldest architectural achievements of mankind. But even before humans first created the staircase, they were already being formed by nature. Stairs were created by the natural formation of geography along hills, mountains, canyons, and other forms of sloped terrain. If a path follows continuously over an incline, rugged stairs will form over a long time due to nature’s forces like earth, wind, fire, and water. When these natural stairs were first seen by our ancestors, they were likely replicated onto stone structures, providing easier access to higher levels of ground.
The earliest documented form of stairs dates back to the year 8000 before Christ, by a civilization in East Asia. Ein as-Sultan, located near Ancient Jericho, was a small town inhabited by an unknown people. This town is known as the world’s oldest settlement, and has shown evidence of primitive stairs made of gravel, mud, adobo, and other earth elements.
Around 6000 BC, a town named Catalhoyuk, located in Turkey, showed evidence of staircases built inside homes. Each house was built beneath the ground, and contained wooden stairs leading up to the surface so that people can walk up for ventilation. Around the same time in history, Egypt and Mesopotamia had shown signs of stairs implemented outdoors to create access to raised entrances of huts and caves.
In the year 55 BC, China had made the first granite staircase which led up a sacred mountain in Taishan. Confucius mentioned in one of his stories that he had gone up these stairs for religious purposes. The main function for these stairs was so that religious natives could walk up to reach divine height and establish a spiritual bond between earth and sky.
During medieval times, spiral stairs were used in castles for military reasons, such as using height to outmaneuver the opponent. The soldier defending the castle would usually defeat the intruder trying to overtake the castle because he would have his right hand free to move in space, and attack as necessary. The invader climbing up the spiral stairs would not have the space available to move his right hand freely – his sword constantly hitting the wall, thus giving an advantage to the castle defender.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that a mathematical system for stairs and railings were developed. A Scottish engineer named Peter Nicholson was the first person to calculate precise measurements for the modern staircase. In Nicholson’s book, “Treatise on the Construction of Staircases and Handrails,” he illustrates in detail the proper methods for building staircases and handrails. Using Nicholson’s blueprints, stair builders around the world started to implement the classic iron and wooden staircase in a majority of all developing multi-story structures.
As buildings got taller and more advanced, staircases grew with them. We now have escalators and elevators – but these will never completely replace the staircase. Yes, they hold far more technological capability than the stairs, but they require the utilization of electrical energy, which is not entirely reliable. Elevators and escalators have always relied on electricity and power, and are useless during times of power outages. Stairs are still required in building code to meet fire and safety hazards.