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Skyscrapers evolved in the late 1800s in the United States. Before then, building heights were restricted by the abilities of masonry walls to support the weight of additional stories. The public's willingness to climb stairs also limited heights. Technical advancements in building and an increased need for space in cities spurred the development of grand, multistoried buildings.

By the mid-1800s, buildings in large cities had reached heights of only four to five stories. While taller buildings could have been built, people were less willing to climb stairs to greater heights. When Elisha Graves Otis invented the passenger elevator in the 1850s, builders were encouraged to build higher. By the 1860s, the elevator was being used in buildings that reached nine or ten stories.

Throughout the late 1800s, real estate in cities became more expensive. Technological advancements like electrical power, incandescent lighting, and the telephone made urban spaces attractive to businesses. Jobs in new industries attracted more and more people to live in cities. As a result, the need for space grew, and the space that existed was expensive and difficult to get. The solution was to build upward, packing more stories into a building.

In 1891 a sixteen-story masonry building, the Monadnock Building, was erected in Chicago, Illinois . It is still the highest masonry building in the world. To support the building's height, the walls at the bottom had to be 6 feet (2 meters) thick. Such walls were not only expensive and cumbersome, but also made doorways deep and windows pointless. Masonry buildings had reached their limits, but the human need for more urban spaces had not.

In 1890 William LeBaron Jenney introduced a new method for building. An internal steel frame was used to support the weight of the building. The outside walls merely supported their own weight and were attached to the frame. The ten-story Home Insurance Building in Chicago was the first to be built this way.

Louis Henri Sullivan used this method to design what is considered to be the first skyscraper in 1890, the Wainright Building in St. Louis, Missouri . Sullivan's inspirational designs led architects to incorporate modern elements of style in their own creations. Soon, taller and taller buildings graced urban areas, reflecting the booming growth and success of the industrial age. Some skyscrapers earned memorable reputations as a result of their designs. The Chrysler Building, completed in 1930 in New York , and the Howells-Hood Chicago Tribune Tower, completed in 1925 in Chicago, are among them.

The skyscraper became a symbol of American progress and prosperity. The taller they were, the greater the successes of America. It soon became a competition to build the tallest skyscraper, and building heights quickly soared. In 1900 the Park Row Building in New York City was the tallest in the world. It towered at 382 feet (116 meters) and thirty-two stories. The Woolworth Building, completed in 1913, in New York, remained the tallest at 792 feet (241 meters) for seventeen years.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, buildings rapidly overcame each other. In 1931 the Empire State Building topped them all. With a height of 1,472 feet (449 meters) and 102 stories, it maintained the world's record for over forty years. In 1973 the World Trade Center's twin towers in New York took over the record and revived the competition to build the tallest building. Their reign ended when Chicago's Sears Tower became the highest in 1974.

In 1998 the competition became an international one when the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, became the tallest in the world. In 2003 Taipei 101 in Taiwan towered above the earth at a record breaking 1,671 feet (509 meters). The final planned height for the Durj Dubai being built in Dubai remains a secret, but it became the world's tallest free-standing structure when it reached 1,821 feet (555 meters). When it opens in June 2009, it will officially become the world's tallest building.

The skyscraper was a technological and economic solution to an urban problem that has evolved into a unique status symbol. The world beyond the United States has embraced the skyscraper as a symbol of prosperity and progress. The skylines of the world's cities have been defined by the unique designs of skyscrapers, and taller is better in the public imagination. With a global economy, the race to build higher and higher has been spurred. In this race for height, the country with the tallest building has the symbolic reputation of being the most economically successful in the world.