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No. 1605:
The Rush to Height

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, New York's 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 skyscraper,

... 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 dissenting line.

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 top.

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.

(Theme music)

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.)

I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and Architecture Library, for her counsel on this episode.

Diagram of the Otis electric elevator system in the Woolworth Building
Diagram of the Otis electric elevator system in the Woolworth Building
(From The Wonder Book of Knowledge, 1923)