First in Sky – The History of Skyscrapers


Just as man has always wanted to rise into the air, for centuries, the ambition of many builders been to erect buildings towering over their surroundings. The history of skyscrapers can be traced back to the biblical references of the Tower of Babylon, but is most often associated with the industrial revolution, which gave mankind the technology necessary to build high. But the era of the sky-high buildings did not begin with the glass and steel structures popularized in the second half of the 20th century. The history of skyscrapers has a ‘higher’ complexity to it. 

Before we jump into famous architects who revolutionized the way buildings looked, it is important to give credit to those who came up with the inventions to make skyscrapers functional. One of the most useful creations was the elevator, invented by American entrepreneur Elisha Otis in 1852. The elevator was first developed as a bottom-up crane and was surprisingly safe. Ever more important in the development of skyscrapers were structural solutions, like the durable and resilient steel skeleton, which allowed buildings to be “pulled upwards”. The production of super-strong steel beams, necessary for the construction of building skeletons dates back to 1855. This process was patented by British engineer Sir Henry Bessemer. The first building to be built entirely on a steel skeleton was The Rand McNally Building, built in 1889 in Chicago according to the design of the Burnham and Root architectural studio. That 10-story building was demolished in 1911 to give way to a larger and higher structure.

The first building to be considered a skyscraper was The Home Insurance Building, an office building and hub for various insurance companies. Designed by William Jenney in 1885, it was ten stories and stood in downtown Chicago at a height of 42 meters. Although it wasn’t the tallest building in the city, it was still considered a skyscraper due to its steel structure. The new feature at the time was the use of walls that were much thinner, but still maintained a similarly strong and durable structure as buildings before it. Thanks to this innovative structure, the building weighed one-third of what it would have had it been erected in a traditional way. Legend has it that the project envisaged the construction of a few more floors, but the city authorities stopped the works, fearing that the building was too tall.  These fears were obviously unfounded. The Home Insurance Building was demolished in 1931 to be replaced by a more modern and larger facility.

In today’s day and age, we do not consider these types of buildings as skyscrapers, per se.  That is because they are not the iconic skyscrapers we associate with our skylines today. The first of their kind was none other than New York City’s Empire State Building. Built in just 410 days and put into operation in 1931, its 103 stories still stand proud at 381 meters high today. That is not to say that the relatively short construction had no consequences.  Several construction workers succumbed to serious injuries and fatalities, as outlined by New York City Construction Injury Lawyers. The Empire State Building was the tallest building in New York for over 40 years until the construction of the World Trade Center towers in 1972. Devastatingly, after their demise in the 2001 terrorist attacks, the Empire State took the crown again until the completion of the Freedom Tower in 2014. The Empire State Building has become famous not only thanks to its height or an exceptionally stylish finish, but also thanks to… a gorilla. It was from the spire of this skyscraper that King Kong fought off planes in the classic 1933 film.

Skyscrapers can shape the way we think and innovate. Logistically, they provide more space in densely-populated areas, like cities. More space means more jobs and more residents.  All in all, skyscrapers give reason to dream limitlessly and give us a scenic view of mankind’s accomplishments.

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