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History of the Tallest Buildings in the World

The Dubai Tower opened in 2010 as the tallest building in the world, but even at 2,717 feet, that structure is far from the most amazing in the history of the tallest buildings in the world. That claim to fame goes back more than a century and a half, back to the time of the very first steel framed buildings, and of the device that enabled people to raise more than ten stories in the sky.

History of the Tallest Buildings in the World

History of the Tallest Buildings in the World

Mankind has always developed tall structures. All one has to do is take a look at antiquity, at the Pyramids of Giza to see man’s heart has always reached toward the sky.

However, the pyramids were tombs, and certainly no one was climbing to the top of them every day. In the history of architecture, there really was no way to build up and up, as long as load-bearing walls were required to hold the entire weight of a structure. It simply defied physics and gravity to expect more out of a manmade edifice.

The world’s first skyscraper is widely considered to be the Home Insurance Building in Chicago within the United States. Erected in 1885, the building was to modern eyes a diminutive ten stories tall. However, the structure, was incredibly unique. Architect William Le Baron Jenney had devised a means of creating a steel frame for the building. That steel frame bore the entire load of the weight of the building, instead of the traditional method of construction in which load-bearing walls held up the weight of the building.

Steel Skeleton

The steel-framed skeleton of the Home Office Building became the model upon which other “Chicago style” buildings were erected. This new mode of building enabled architects and contractors to be free of the traditional load-bearing wall means of building construction. From that point on, they could build skyscrapers higher than a mere ten stories.

Within a few years, that’s exactly what happened. In 1891, the Wainwright Building was erected. It was the first steel-framed structure with exterior vertical struts, which served to emphasize the building’s height. it also resembled most closely what today’s observers would see as a “modern” skyscraper. The Wainwright Building made its mark in the history of the tallest buildings in the world.

It wasn’t enough, though, to just build higher buildings, and find a way to have them support their weight. In those days, air-conditioning was still a dream, and none of the buildings had any way for a pedestrian to get to the upper floors except by walking up the stairs. That might’ve been good for their health, but it seems like it would’ve been a tough job, indeed, in the middle of a humid summer for a worker to climb ten or twenty flights of stairs every time he wanted to go to or leave his office building.

It seemed the problem for the ever-increasing height of buildings was finding a way for people to use them without engaging in an Olympic marathon to reach the top.

The Otis Elevator

Next to the steel skeleton, the most important invention in furthering the construction of skyscrapers was the safety elevator (that is, an elevator that wouldn’t “break” by falling and killing the people inside.) Elisha Otis demonstrated his safety elevator at the 1853 New York World’s Fair, and the approval of the crowds to an elevator that automatically braked when the cord holding it up was broken met was unanimous. Otis’ device deserves more than a footnote in the history of the tallest buildings in the world.

For the next 50 years, cities vied with one another to create ever-taller skyscrapers. New York City held probably the longest record with the erection of the Empire State Building in 1931. At 1,250 feet tall, the Empire State Building was the first skyscraper ever to exceed 100 stories, at 102.

The Art Deco-designed building was the tallest building in the world for over 40 years. The erection of the World Trade Center Twin Towers in New York in 1973 broke that record, but only for a year.

In 1974, the Sears Tower in Chicago became the world’s tallest building. As of 2010, the Dubai Tower holds that honor, but future projects will likely eclipse that feat.