English Across the Curriculum


History of Skyscrapers

Two discoveries in the middle of the 1800s made it possible to build modern skyscrapers. Before the Industrial Revolution brick and stone walls carried the weight of buildings. Because each floor was very heavy it was impossible to build very high houses. In the middle of the 19th century steel became an important building material. This metal was strong and light. Architects could now construct a steel skeleton to support very tall buildings. Chicago’s Home Insurance Company Building was ten stories tall and the first skyscraper to use such a steel construction.

Skyscrapers would have been useless if people had to walk up and down many flights of stairs. In 1853 an elevator safe enough to carry passengers was invented by Elisha Graves Otis.

During the early 20th century the construction of tall buildings became very popular in big cities. Cities grew bigger as more and more people could live and work there. Tall buildings were also seen as a symbol of power and greatness. Thus, major cities, especially in America, fought for the tallest buildings in the world. For four decades the Empire State Building in New York was the world’s highest structure. The 381 metre high landmark has 102 stories and was completed in 1932. The World Trade Centre, finished in 1973, became a symbol the city’s economic strength. Even though many New Yorkers did not like them at the beginning, they got used to the “Twin Towers” in the middle of Manhattan. The destruction of the World Trade Centre in the terrorist attacks of 2001 hit the heart of the city.

The Empire State Building in New York
Image: https://inmobiliariacerdanyola.com, CC BY-SA 2.0,
via Wikimedia Commons


Today the world’s tallest buildings no longer stand in America. Other countries, mainly in the growing regions of Asia, have entered the prestigious race for the tallest structures in the world. The 452 metre high Petronas Towers in Malaysia, completed in 1996, became the first skyscraper outside the US to climb the top of the list. The Burj Khalifa, completed in 2010, is currently the world's highest building. It has a height of 828 metres spanning 163 floors.

As the race for the world’s tallest building continues most experts have different opinions on how tall skyscrapers can become. Some say building a 1000-metre high structure would be no problem with today’s technology; others think that we would need lighter, stronger materials as well as faster elevators to make this possible


The World's Tallest Buildings
Image: Phoenix CZE, CC BY-SA 4.0,
via Wikimedia Commons