Today, the brief day of the first 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 created them.
We know that a great fire leveled Chicago in 1871 and that
the modern skyscraper emerged as the city rebuilt. Ask
when the skyscraper was invented and you get the decade
of the 1880s.
You and I use the word skyscraper for a building
whose top vanishes when clouds are low. We need to
readjust that thinking when we see pictures of the first
skyscraper. It was Chicago's little nine-story
Home Insurance Building, built in 1885.
That kind of height was rare back then, but two other
features also set the building apart. One was its
elevator, driven by city water pressure. Hydraulic elevators were known at the
time, but few ran that high. The other feature was an
iron and steel skeleton inside the building. The walls
hung on that steel frame.
Six years later, Chicago's sixteen-story Monadnock
Building still used load-bearing walls, but they had
to be six feet thick at the base with a fifteen-foot
thick foundation below it. The building had reached a
practical limit. It would take steel-frame construction
to get around that limit.
With steel skeletons, and new electric elevators,
both Chicago and New York began building upward. By 1913,
Woolworth Building had reached 57 stories -- over a
seventh of a mile in height. The people erecting these
buildings were now seeing height as an end in itself.
Chicago architect Louis Sullivan wrote that the
... must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and
power of altitude must be in it, the glory and the pride
of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a
proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exaltation that
from bottom to top it is a unit without a single
Dreamers also began thinking about multiple skyscrapers.
In the 1920s, designers talked about The Titan City. They saw cities of
skyscrapers rising, story upon story, interconnected by
multi-level highways, and served by airplanes near the
But, just then, Fritz Lang made his movie Metropolis.
His Titan City was a nightmare. A pampered upper class
lived above, while slaves laboring in the depths below
made the city run. Lang embedded horror within beauty and
created a vision that still upsets us when we watch it
seventy-five years later.
Two immense skyscrapers were finished four and five years
after Metropolis -- the Chrysler Building and the
quarter-mile-high Empire State Building. Then we abruptly
quit. It was another forty years before we reached any
higher. The skyscraper's salad days were over. There was
of course a Depression followed by WW-II. And private
automobiles began to disperse cities.
But if you think technology is that logical, go back and
rent a copy of Metropolis. Watch Lang's
overpowering ascent into hell. Then ask yourself, would
you still've had any taste for building vast cities
upward -- after you'd seen that for the first time.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Peters, T. F., The Rise of the Skyscraper from the Ashes of
Chicago. American Heritage of Invention &
Technology, Fall 1987, pp. 14-23.
P. Goldberger, The Skyscraper. New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, 1981. (The Sullivan quotation is on page 18.)
For a tour of historic Chicago architecture, see:
For more on Lang's Metropolis, see: http://www.persocom.com.br/brasilia/metropo.htm
I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and
Architecture Library, for her counsel on this
(From The Wonder Book of
Diagram of the Otis electric elevator system in the
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright
© 1988-2000 by John H. Lienhard.