Today, let's talk about skyscrapers. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Skyscraper is such a
fine evocative word! When I was a child, the
41-story First National Bank Building loomed larger
than anything else in St. Paul, Minnesota. It
really did scrape the very sky. Modern skyscrapers
came into their own in the early 1890s. But, for
that to happen, so many new technologies had to
Before architects could take the bold step of
raising buildings beyond about five stories,
someone had to develop a workable elevator. Someone
else had to recognize that the shell of the
building should be hung on a steel skeleton — that
it was not enough to hang iron facades on wood or
brick frames. A whole new technology of building
foundations had to be invented. Buildings now had
to be designed to withstand formidable wind loads
that'd hadn't occurred to architects of an earlier
The skyscraper was the phoenix that rose from the
ashes of the great 1871 Chicago Fire. Before the fire,
Chicago's architecture was uninhibited and
undisciplined. The 18,000 buildings that perished
were made of wood and brick, with some iron facing.
The commerce that'd built Chicago was hardly hurt
by the fire, and those commercial interests
demanded that a new city be built, a fireproof
city, an iron city. The other pressure was to make
the best use of real estate in Chicago's crowded
Two factions converged on the rubble: the
freewheeling builders of old Chicago and a new
breed of formal designers trained in analytical
mechanics. Many of those new engineers were
foreign, and they all reflected the influence of
France's theoretical École
Polytechnique. The two factions didn't agree,
but out of their conflict emerged bold new concepts
for making tall steel-framed buildings — concepts
that had to be grounded on complex analysis.
These new buildings could not feasibly rise any
higher than an elevator could carry its occupants.
Hydraulic lifts had been around since the 1830s,
but they couldn't go very high. Elisha Otis
invented a safe steam-powered elevator in 1857, but
someone had to keep stoking a fire under the
boiler. Electric motors would have to be the
answer, and the first electric elevators were tried
out in Germany in 1880. Practical control systems
finally made electric elevators effective in the
By the turn of the century, tall buildings were
typically fifteen stories high. A scant thirty
years later, the Empire State Building reached
seven times that height.
And the great impetus for all this was Mrs.
O'Leary's perhaps-apocryphal cow who kicked over a
lantern and burned down a very real Chicago. That
catastrophe led to a singular convergence of new
technologies. And out of that mixing, the American
city emerged as a completely new invention — a far
more extraordinary phoenix than the half-formed
city of old Chicago.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Peters, T. F., The Rise of the Skyscraper from the
Ashes of Chicago. American Heritage of Invention
& Technology, Fall 1987, pp. 14-23.
This is a greatly revised version of Episode 61.
For an interactive experience, visit the Musuem of Modern Art's Tall Building Exhibition and The Skyscraper Museum.
For more information on the following topics: Flatiron Building, history of the elevator, history of the skyscraper.
From the 1911 Encyclopaedia
Three steps in the completion of New York City's
first skyscraper, the 285-foot-tall Flatiron
Building, finished in 1902
Photo by John Lienhard
Present day detail of the stone facing at the tip
of the Flatiron building
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H.