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Our obsession with magnificent buildings started with the pyramids in Egypt. Since the first civilizations, builders and architects have sought to build bigger and bigger to please their gods or to honor their masters. These first buildings had one main constraint: the fact that they had load-bearing walls built with masonry to support most of the weight meaning that the maximum height was restricted by how heavy they needed to be at the base.

Then in the 19th century, the skyscraper emerged. The first version was the safe elevator which was a steam-operated elevator mostly used to transport factory materials in mines and warehouses. People did not use these lifts as they were very fragile and if the cable broke anyone inside would plummet to the bottom of the shaft. Elisha Graves Otis changed all of that by developing a safety device that prevented elevators from falling if the cable snapped. This spurred inventors to develop the electric motor elevator making the elevator an easy way to get to the top of tall buildings.

In Chicago, in the 1880’s available development land was scarce. Town planners accepted that the only way was up, so developers starting to look to the skies. Soon they developed a new method of construction that used a grid of steel beams and columns strong enough to support any force a building might encounter. This advancement started the race to build the world’s tallest skyscraper.

Modern materials were a fundamental component in the success of these new super tall buildings. Concrete is the most common material by virtue of its versatility. Glass became important and served to keep the weather out and let the light in. Glass walls were popular after World War II, as they are much lighter and cheaper than concrete or masonry; and are also weatherproof and provide natural light.

It then reached a point where skyscrapers at a certain height began to sway with the wind. To solve the problem engineers started using braced steel trusses between central elevator shafts, while also moving the beams and columns to the outside edges of the walls creating a stiff tube. In 1970, builders used the tuned mass damper; a giant concrete block with shock absorbers on a lubricated plate designed like a pendulum to counteract the motion.

Race to the top

The competition to build taller and taller buildings was the hallmark of corporate construction in the early 20th century. The first to rise to prominence were the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower (700 feet), the Woolworth Building (792 feet), and the Chrysler Building in 1930. Soon after becoming the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Chrysler was outdone by the Empire State Building which stretched 1,250, built during the Depression as a beacon of hope.

The Empire State Building held the title for 41 years until the original World Trade Center took the mantle in 1972 rising to 1,368 feet with 110 stories. But it only managed to hold the top spot for two years as the Sears Tower became the world’s biggest at 1450 feet. But, in 1998, the king of the skyscrapers mantel left America when Malaysia completed the 1483 feet Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. Taipei 100 became the tallest in 2004 at 1,670 feet and managed to hold strong until January 2010 when the Burj Khalifa claimed the world’s tallest skyscraper extending to a height of 2,716 and 160 stories. The Burg also has the fastest elevators in the world and uses 250,000 gallons of water per day.

The future tallest building

In 2020, the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia will claim the top prize for the tallest building when completed. It will stretch 3,307 feet. There is plans afoot in Tokyo for the Tokyo Sky Mile Tower if completed it will become the tallest at a whopping 5577 feet with more than 400 floors. The question is how high can we go? Experts suggest that a one mile building is even possible with a buttressed core. To go two miles is theoretically possible, but would require a hollowed base like the Eiffel Tower. Building professionals consider there to be no real limit on how tall a building can go and could conceivably outstretch the highest mountain as long as the base is spread wider and wider. Perhaps one day we could see a skyscraper that is bigger than Everest. In terms of the highest structure though, the space elevator—elevated 100,000 km— anchored to the earth and extended to beyond our atmosphere is more likely to lift us to the highest possible point.

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