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Building the World's First Skyscraper

The B1M | 3:39

Building the World's First Skyscraper

Tom Ravenscroft

12 April 2017

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SKYSCRAPERS have come to define our major cities. From London to New York, and from Dubai to Kuala Lumpla these iconic buildings are the recognisable symbols of their cities. But where did this upward drive begin?

The word, skyscraper has a long history of describing objects that are tall. The term first began to be associated with buildings in the early 1880s as the skylines of Chicago and New York started to rise.

Following the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, rapid economic growth placed ever increasing demands on land in the city, forcing developers to build upwards. This demand combined with several important technological advances culminated in the construction of Chicago's Home Insurance Building - the world's first skyscraper.


Above: Chicago's Home Insurance Building - the world's first skyscraper (image courtesy of Corbis ).

Known as the father of the modern skyscraper, the building, completed in 1884, was the first tall structure to be supported internally and externally by a fireproof metal frame.

Rising to 138-feet tall (around 42 meters), the 10-storey tower is short by today's standards. However, according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat it stood as the “World’s Tallest Building” for just over a five years after its completion.

At the time the majority of tall buildings relied on brickwork or masonry load-bearing walls for support. However, by the late 19th Century this construction method began to limit height, as taller towers required ever thicker walls on lower levels to support the weight of floors above.

Engineer architect, William LeBaron Jenney, a classmate of Gustave Eiffel, was convinced that a metal-frame would allow buildings to rise taller while reducing there weight. Legend has it he was inspired after seeing his wife place a heavy book on a metal birdcage that didn’t break.

A fireproof metal-frame had first been used in 1797 at Ditherington Flax Mill in the UK.

Above: William LeBaron Jenney designed the Home Insurance Building with a metal frame ( image courtesy of Chicago Historical Society).  

Utilising this method of construction at the Home Insurance Building allowed Jenney to hang light masonry walls (like curtains) from the frame. Reducing its weight by two thirds as compared to an equivalent stone building. Jenney's innovative approach alarmed city officials, who were so concerned the building might topple, that they halted construction to investigate its structural safety.

Not only did the building prove structurally sound, it was considered so strong that in 1890, six years after completion, two additional stories were added to the top of the building.

Above: The Home Insurance Building incorporated an elevator (image courtesy of Sprang Printing).  

The Home Insurance Building also incorporated another innovation that was essential for the progression of skyscrapers – the elevator or lift. After solving several dangerous design flaws, by the 1880s the hydraulic elevator had become a viable solution. This technology had been used in tall buildings before, most notably in New York's Equitable Life Building, completed in 1870.

The Home Insurance Building was not the first tall tower, the first to incorporate a metal frame or the first to have a hydraulic lift, however, it was the first to incorporate all of these elements, making it the blueprint for the modern skyscraper.

Although the Home Insurance Building was deconstructed in 1931, it's legacy lives on as in hundreds of skyscrapers across the globe.

Images courtesy of Corbis, Glasshouse Images, Sprang Printing, Chicago Historical society, Friends of Flaxmill Maltings, Canadian Centre for Architecture, King's Handbook of New York City and Architectural Photographing Company. We welcome you sharing our content to inspire others, but please be nice and play by our rules.

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