Top Floor: The History of the Modern Skyscraper


These days, the challenge to build the biggest, highest, tallest, strongest buildings is everywhere. Everyone wants to build the tallest building in the city, county, state, province, country…and of course…the tallest building in the world! In our modern megacities, where we’re surrounded by towering masses of glass, steel, concrete and wood, it’s very easy to forget that the building which makes our modern lives possible…the skyscraper…is only just over a hundred years old! In the scope of construction-technology, the skyscraper is but a child, something that we probably don’t think about very much, but it’s true.

Before the Skyscraper

It’s hard to imagine our cities without skyscrapers, isn’t it? The tallest fully-inhabitable structures were usually no more than five or six storeys tall. There was no elevator, there were no big, glossy windows and there were no handsome, artistically-carved facades of stonework to drool over. Without the invention of the elevator, the only way to move between floors was through dozens of staircases. People were unwilling to go up more than a few flights of stairs and so stairs normally stopped after only a few floors. Water-pumps were unable to build up enough water-pressure to force running water up pipes and into bathrooms and other rooms where water was necessary, beyond a certain height, and this too limited how high a practical building could be.

But the biggest thing restricting the construction of tall buildings was the lack of steel.

Although steel had existed for centuries, at the time it was difficult to mass produce. The shortage of this strong wonder-metal meant that it was too expensive to use steel to build frameworks and scaffolding for buildings. Without a strong frame to hold the building up and take the strain, the weight of the buildings was transferred to the walls. To combat the crushing weight of tons of masonary, glass and metal, early buildings which were to be built to what were then considered significant heights, had to have walls that were incredibly thick. In some extreme cases, as much as six feet of solid stone and brick!

The Development of the Modern Skyscraper

Cheap Steel

The skyscraper as we know it today was the result of several inventions and developments. Probably the first of these was the creation of a method for the mass-production of steel, which, prior to the mid 19th century, was an expensive metal and difficult and expensive to manufacture in large quantities.

Using a large, barrel-shaped device called a Bessemer Converter, English inventor Henry Bessemer was able to create a process for manufacturing steel cheaply and quickly. Molten pig-iron was poured into the open top of the Bessemer Converter and a fire which was made to burn hotter thanks to air injected into it by pipes at the bottom of the converter, allowed the pig iron to be superheated, burning or vapourising any impurities in the metal. Once the impurities had been burnt off, the huge Bessemer Converter (which, when full, could take thirty tons of pig iron!) was tipped over on the axle which attached it to a massive, secure frame built around it. When the converter was tipped over, pure steel poured out and ran into any moulds that were waiting for it. Once the metal had cooled, strong, preformed and perfect steel beams were ready for use!


A Bessemer Converter. Converters such as these lasted from the 1870s until the process was finally declared obsolete in the 1960s

The Bessemer Process was crucial for the development of the skyscraper. Without a way to quickly and cheaply manufacture steel, the skyscraper would never have existed. The thick, heavy, load-bearing walls of conventional buildings of the day would have to have been yards thick to be able to build buildings of the heights we know today. This all changed with steel.

With steel, buildings could now be built with frames first, each I-beam or girder held together by several red-hot rivets. These steel frames could be built quickly and they could be built high and they could be built strong! With the floors and the framework taking the weight of the building, the walls no longer had to be so thick. Now, walls could have more windows in them, they could have more decorative brick-and-stonework and…in the modern world…they could be made entirely of glass!

The Elevator

The modern skyscraper could not have existed without Bessemer steel. But even with Bessemer steel, it still would not have existed. In the 19th century, buildings were restricted in height due to the inconvenience of stairs! People were unwilling to go up endless flights of stairs. It was tiring, it was slow and stairwells and staircases took up an annoyiingly large amount of space inside a building. This changed when the electric safety-elevator was invented.

Elevators have been around for centuries. The Colosseum in Rome had lots of them! But these elevators were simple wood-and-rope affairs, driven by manpower or counterweights. Effective for rising up a few feet, but useless for rising up the dozens of storeys of the modern skyscraper. The electrically-powered safety-elevator allowed buildings and people to climb higher more efficiently, but these didn’t show up until the late 19th century.

An American named Elisha Otis is credited with inventing an elevator which people would feel safe on. Otis’s ‘safety elevator’ was so-called because in the event of the elevator-cable snapping, a pair of jaws and rollers at the top of the elevator-car would spring outwards and catch on the sides of the elevator shaft, thus preventing an accident. Of course, if the elevator was descending, this migh cause the safety-mechanism to trip accidently, so the elevator-brakes were speed-operated – they would only spring into action if there was a sudden drop of the elevator-car, consistent with a broken cable.

The first modern electrically-powered elevator came in the 1880s and, combined with Otis’s 1850s safety-elevator technology, the modern “lift” as we know it today, was born.

Lack of Land

People only build big and tall for two reasons: One, they can. Two, they have to. These days, skyscrapers are built because they can be built, but back in the turn of the last century, skycrapers were built because they had to be built. Cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Melbourne, London and Paris were becoming increasingly crowded due to factors ranging from the Industrial Revolution to immigration to gold-rushes. Cities were swelling up and unable to look down, city planners and architects started looking for ways to build higher. With cheap steel, elevators and a massive immigrant workforce, cities which made the skyscraper famous, such as New York, were born.

Where do we get the term ‘Skyscraper’ from?

Why ‘skyscraper’? Why not cloud-climber or sunkisser or moonhugger or man-mountain? Where did we get the term ‘skyscraper’ from?

The term ‘Skyscraper’ as we know it today, meaning a tall, thin building which is continuously inhabitable from the ground up, comes from the very lips of the men who built these massive structures. Many of the men who built skyscrapers around the turn of the century were sailors, men who spent weeks at sea climbing up and down the rigging of sailing-ships and who were therefore immune to the stomach-churning heights of hundreds of feet up in the air that skyscraper-builders had to face every day.

The sailors who made up the backbone of the skyscraper workforce named these new and fantastic buildings which they were constructing ‘skyscrapers’, which was the nickname for the very highest sail on a conventional, three-masted sailing-ship (the actual term is ‘Topgallant’). The name was amazingly appropriate, and it has stuck for the last a hundred and twenty odd years.


The main topgallant (‘E’ in the picture above) was colloquially called the ‘skyscraper’ by sailors, who made up the main workforce which constructed many famous early skyscrapers, and the name just stuck

Building a Tower Up to the Sun

By the first quarter of the 20th century, the skyscraper had changed the global cityscape forever. Skyscrapers were big business and they were shooting up all over the world. How big a business? Fat cats were so into building these massive structures that they did almost anything to entice construction-workers to work on their latest projects. The average construction-worker could earn twice what he usually did by agreeing to help build a skyscraper!

Although the pay for construction workers and general unskilled labourers who wanted to work on skyscrapers was double the usual rate, the work was easily a hundred times more dangerous. Construction-workers – riveters, crane-operators and general labourers, risked death every single day working at heights of a hundred, five hundred, a thousand feet and even higher up in the air!

But people do that today all the time so it’s no problem. Right?

Wrong.

From the 1890s-1940s, construction-safety as we know it today did not exist at all. At 900ft up in the air, a riveter or a general construction-worker was entirely on his own. He had no ropes. No cables. No harnesses. No winches. And certainly no hard-hat. Safety-nets? Forget it! One wrong step or one gust of wind while walking on a steel girder less than half a foot wide…and it was a freefall drop to certain death nearly a mile below. Working on a skyscraper was called “treading the steel” or “walking the steel”…because you literally had to walk around on those skinny steel beams to move around the building with absolutely no safety-gear. Experienced workers were called ‘roughnecks’ while new and inexperienced workers were nicknamed ‘snakes’. ‘Snakes’ because working with them was extremely dangerous. One wrong step, one distraction or one miscalculation…and the snake (and possibly other workers) were dead.


A famous photograph by Lewis Hine. It shows construction-workers on their lunch-break in the early 1930s. Note the lack of any safety-equipment. This photo isn’t staged and it hasn’t been retouched. The building they’re constructing is the Crysler Building, the building of which, Hines was commissioned to document with his camera

Even in the days before welding, skyscrapers were built phenomenally fast. The Empire State Building, the tallest building in New York City could rise up two or three floors a day (with a total of 102 floors!), which was amazingly fast when you consider that all the positioning, bolting, screwing and riveting was done entirely by hand! Due to the restricted size of the Manhattan streetgrid, girders which arrived at the Empire State Building would leave their delivery trucks still hot from the forge and would be winched up right away. There was nowhere on the ground to let the hot steel cool off before it was used, so instead the construction workers just hauled it up the moment it arrived and let the wind blow on it to cool it down as it rose.

The Skyscraper Today

These days, the skyscraper is a symbol of the modern world, the modern city, it’s a staple of our lives. To have a 21st century without the skyscraper is to have one without telephones, automobiles, the computer or the iPhone. And yet, while we may sometimes think of the skyscraper as a modern invention, one should also remember that it both is, and isn’t. Is it modern? Certainly. A hundred years is an eye-blink in the pages of history, but is it also old? Yes. To think that this icon of the modern city had its roots in the crowded, noisy, congested and choked streets of the late 19th century and that it has survived for so long.

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2 Comments

  1. Felix Savie said,

    November 15, 2010 at 12:16 PM

    That photo isn’t by Lewis Hine and it isn’t of the Empire State Building. The photo is called “Lunchtime atop a Skyscraper” by Charles C. Ebbets and it is of the GE Building (RCA Building at the time).

    • scheong said,

      November 16, 2010 at 9:59 AM

      Thanks Felix. Yes I only realised my mistake months after I posted that photo. I’ll need to find another one instead!


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