The First Skyscrapers (And How They Became Possible)

Exterior of Chicago's Home Insurance Building, widely considered to be the world's first modern skyscraper. Chicago History Museum / Archive Photos / Getty Images

The first skyscrapers -- tall commercial buildings with iron or steel frameworks -- came about in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and the Chicago Home Insurance Building is generally considered the first modern skyscraper despite being just 10 stories high. 

Skyscrapers were made possible through a series of architectural and engineering innovations.

Henry Bessemer

Henry Bessemer (1813-1898) of England, is well-known for inventing the first process to mass-produce steel inexpensively.

An American, William Kelly, had held a patent for "a system of air blowing the carbon out of pig iron," but bankruptcy forced Kelly to sell his patent to Bessemer, who had been working on a similar process for making steel. In 1855, Bessemer patented his own "decarbonization process, utilizing a blast of air." This breakthrough opened the door for builders to start making taller and taller structures. Modern steel today is still made using technology based on Bessemer's process.

George Fuller

While “the Bessemer process” kept Bessemer’s name well-known long after his death, lesser known today is the man who actually employed that process to innovate the first skyscraper: George A. Fuller (1851-1900). 

Fuller had been working on trying to solve the problems of the "load bearing capacities" of tall buildings. At the time, construction techniques called for outside walls to carry the load of a building’s weight.

Fuller, however, had a different idea.

Fuller realized that buildings could bear more weight—and therefore soar higher—if he used Bessemer steel beams to give buildings a load-bearing skeleton on the inside of the building. In 1889, Fuller erected the Tacoma Building, a successor to the Home Insurance Building that became the first structure ever built where the outside walls did not carry the weight of the building.

Using Bessemer steel beams, Fuller developed his technique for creating his steel cages to supported all the weight in his subsequent skyscrapers. 

The Flatiron Building was one of New York City's first skyscrapers, built in 1902 by Fuller's building company. Daniel H. Burnham was the chief architect.

First Use of the Term "Skyscraper"

The term "skyscraper,” as far as existing records show, was first used to refer to a tall building during the 1880s in Chicago, shortly after the first 10 to 20 story buildings were built in the United States. Combining several innovations—steel structures, elevators, central heating, electrical plumbing pumps and the telephone— skyscrapers came to dominate American skylines at the turn of the century. The world's tallest building when it opened in 1913, architect Cass Gilbert's 793-foot Woolworth Building was considered a leading example of tall building design.

Today, the tallest skyscrapers in the world approach and even exceed heights of 2,000 feet. In 2013, construction began in Saudi Arabia on the Kingdom Tower, originally intended to rise one mile into the sky, its scaled-down design will leave it at about one kilometer high, with more than 200 floors.