The technology of urban verticality: Part 9, I-beam steel

August 11, 2017 | cement, Cities, Electricity, Elevators, Housing, Infrastructure, Innovation, plumbing, Rome, Sanitation, Speculation, Technology, telephone, Theory, Toilets, Verticality


By: David A. Smith


[Continued from the preceding Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, and Part 8.]


As the previous three parts established, in rapid succession the elevator, the telephone, and electricity on demand accelerated the economic benefits of information-based urbanization and the rise of ever-larger companies, governments, and personal fortunes – and for the first time in history (I think), these new fortunes were urban byproducts. 


There’s money in cities, money in technology, money in consolidation


Before 1850, money was made chiefly from land, agricultural or agricultural rents.  Land was owned by familial inheritance, by sovereign grant, or by conquest.  When it became possible for a man in a city to become rich from his own efforts, the whole ethos of society changed. 


Pickwick: pre-urbanized picaresque


[Now that I reflect on it, perhaps the social disruption wrought by the rise of urban wealth creation lies at the heart of Dickens’ work, because after his earlier lightweight works (Sketches by Boz, Pickwick Papers), his major novels concern urbanization and what Dickens consistently portrays as the immorality of the randomness of wealth and poverty being disconnected from character: Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Dombey and Son, and Little Dorrit all deal with the dynamics of urban wealth and its disruptive effects on what to Dickens was the purer motivation of his country characters. – Ed.]



Scale and leverage – of energy, people’s labor and initiative, and capital – favored cities as nerve, power, and money hubs, and that meant a great prize was waiting for those who could build up into the sky, using a revolutionary new form of construction: integrated framed construction using the new miracle material, steel.



Sources used in this post series


Arthur Pound, “Of Mills and Markets”, 1926, cited here; teal font)

Development of steel-framed buildings in Britain, 1880-1905 (1998); Alastair Jackson;  rustoleum font)

Life before artificial light, Guardian (October 31, 2009; methane-blue font)

Sarah Woodbury, the invention of the chimney (December 15, 2011; creosote brown font)

Mike Rendell, Georgian Gentleman (February 13, 2012; coprophagic brown font)

The secrets of ancient Roman concrete (June 21, 2013; galvanized zinc font)

Elevators, the vertical utility (April 1, 2014; 5 parts; mud brown font)

Tesla v. Edison: Who was the better inventor? (July 20, 2014; pearl-gray spats font)

The father of the fireplace insert – Benjamin Franklin (brick red font)

Sewer history, Toilets, earth closets, and house plumbing (undated)



10.       I-beam steel and curtain wall construction (1890)


As my guide to steel-frame construction I have adopted Alastair Jackson, an architect whose article in Construction History (Volume 14, 1998), Development of steel-framed buildings in Britain, 1880-1905, though not being optioned by Steven Spielberg or Angelina Jolie, nevertheless provides an outstanding guide to the disruptive effect, first in engineering and building verticality, and then to architectural sensibilities, starting with the new form of construction it enabled:


My definition is as follows: A steel-framed building consists of a framework of primary vertical and horizontal steel members connected to provide full resistance to static, live, and dynamic and environmental forces.” 


The principal difference from earlier buildings is the use of continuous stanchions for the full heights of buildings, butted and spliced as necessary.  The connections to the columns should utilize bolts or rivets in shear, either through a scaling bracket or directly through a web connection, and should have some moment carrying capacity.


Ubiquitous today, revolutionary at the time


In architectural terms, steel is a miracle material: for its strength it is lightweight, it can be shaped to suit, has enormous tensile strength when shaped, and when bolted or riveted together, it can form continuous beams without inherent structural weaknesses.


In such a structure the role of masonry can, but does not have to be, reduced to non-loadbearing status. 


Is your name Bessemer, by any chance?


Once you can bend steel to any shape you want, no more need for arches; and once you no longer need masonry to bear load, then building structures become much lighter, bye-bye flying buttresses – internal bracing can hold the building together in constructive tension.


A whole new way of creating space in the sky


Steel’s structural potential took several decades in arriving, it was a widely-anticipated widely anticipated breakthrough:


A magic pot for a magic metal


The use of steel for structural purposes was initially slow. The Bessemer process in 1855 made steel production more efficient, and cheap steels, which had high tensile and compressive strengths plus good ductility were available from about 1870, but wrought and cast iron continued to satisfy most of the demand for iron-based building products, due mainly to problems of producing steel from alkaline ores. These problems, caused principally by the presence of phosphorus, were solved by Sidney Gilchrist Thomas in 1879.


But the economic pressure was there.  As I wrote in my post on elevators:


Reversing the polarity of the economic proposition created an engineering challenge to build as high as physics would allow.


To many definitions of cities we can add yet another one: A city is a location where the network effects of infrastructure become magnetic – the value of incremental hookups outweighs the cost of extending the network to accommodate.


The development of the railways was one of the main driving forces behind the introduction of steel in various forms.  There were strong links between the railway and steel construction industries, not only in the demand for steel, for rails and locomotives, but also in infrastructure development – particularly bridges, stations, and warehouses. 


Those infrastructure network effects were heightened by the Gilded Age’s discovery of the natural monopoly power of railroads, oil companies, and for a time even mega-banking, where there was a race to build out and dominate the network.


[Lest you think those days are behind us, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Uber would like you to keep thinking that breakthrough network-effect technologies are just a thing of the past.  – Ed.]


Portrait of Jeff Bezos, founder of

No, Jeff, we need a natural laugh


The roots of the [architectural] debate [over the building structural potential of steel] predate Bessemer. 


Having discovered John Ruskin relatively late in life, I have come to dislike him enormously, though I can’t pinpoint why.  Perhaps it’s his narcissism, his ceaseless self-satisfied grandiloquence, or his elevation of esthetics to moral certainties, all of which are in display on this epically pompous pronouncement:


In 1849 Ruskin had written “true architecture does not admit iron as a construction material.” 


Nor is this simply a throwaway: Ruskin then goes on at some length before allowing iron back among the building elements, if only in the most proletarian role: “metals may be used as a cement, but not as a support.”  Though this technological provincialism makes you want to sock him, it would be irrelevant, except that when building construction is hobbled by esthetics at the expense of functionality (cf. the Athens Charter crowd and Brutalism), humanity suffers and all because some in the upper crust denigrate striving if it is not artful by aristocratic standards:


Architects attached importance to truth and morality in their work. 


Truth is a building that survives a fire or an earthquake.  Morality is a roof that doesn’t leak.


It is fair to say this is not a great issue with most engineers, who were not concerned with the conceptual design of ordinary buildings. 


So the engineers, unworried by the architects’ concerns over truth and morality, simply kept improving the processes to make steel:


Serious problems caused by phosphorus in the iron ore were solved eventually by Gilchrist Thomas in 1879. 


An engineering breakthrough at 29: Sidney Gilchrist Thomas


In 1880 there were two papers about steel at RIBA – by J. A. Picton and Professor A. W. B. Kennedy.  These demonstrated that the architecture profession was alive to the issues posed by steel at the earliest stages of its commercial introduction.


Ah, yes, architectural papers, where good ideas can be discussed hypothetically.  While these were being discussed, the engineers were building:


Sir William Arrol completed the Forth Bridge in 1890.


Some might call it beautiful; all would call it functional


At a further stage in the debate, the design of Tower Bridge, completed in 1894 [Also by Arrol – Ed.] and still esthetically controversial today, incensed some of the architectural profession because of the way its masonry towers conceal steel frame construction. 


Made to look old to appease the aristocrats


H. H. Statham refused to show it in The Builder.


The Builder was first published in 1843 and continues today, though in a nod to modernity its name was changed to Building in 1966.


Although the steel framed building was superficially similar to earlier framed buildings constructed using cast and wrought iron, it was in fact radically different in terms of its structural functioning.  Introducing steel into buildings [resulted in using] continuous columns, extending for more than one storey.  This ended the long tradition of constructing buildings floor by floor.  The design of the joints between columns and floors changed significantly as a result.


Once the capitalists realized that steel would let them build tall, they gave the engineers their building orders:


In the United States, the first steel framed building was the Rand McNally Building in Chicago, erected in 1890.


The first of its kind


Remarkably, the world’s first steel-frame building lasted only 22 years, when it was demolished, vertically obsolete, and a taller building put on the site – a building that today one has difficulty pinpointing from Google Street View because it is surrounded by even taller and newer buildings.



AHI’s housing technology series


March 14, 2006: The earliest apartments, Roman insulae

April 14, 2006: The evolving modern home

April 28, 2006: The cradle of apartment living: New York City

August 13, 2007: Cities and scale, 3 parts

March 25, 2008: The economics of water, 7 parts

June 19, 2008: Urbanizing requires formalization, 2 parts

March 20, 2009: When and where modern housing was born

April 5, 2010: Preaching the gospel of water infrastructure, 2 parts

April 20, 2011: The high-rise’s mahout

January 28, 2013: Grandma in a can?

July 20, 2013: The new urbanism of Tiny Tower

April 1, 2014: Elevators, the vertical utility, 7 parts

August 4, 2014: Vertically obsolete?, 3 parts

February 17, 2015: Form forces function, 8 parts

April 15, 2015: A tale of two cities (Chicago), 12 parts

June 20, 2016: Pre-municipal cities, four typologies, 10 parts

December 5, 2016: The first housing commissioner, 10 parts


Together the telephone, electricity on demand, and I-beam streel-frame construction had an effect on urbanization nothing short of extraordinary (and without precedent before or since).  As I wrote in Part 3 of my post on elevators:


In the 1890s, as Bernard recounts in his book, the tallest building in the world was the 20-story Masonic Temple in Chicago;


Tallest building in the world … for a while.


By 1913, when hydraulic elevators had been replaced with much speedier and more efficient electrical ones, it was the 55-story Woolworth Building in New York.


Tallest building in the world, 1913


As J. A. Picton foresaw in 1880:


“Science has put within our reach a new constructive element, so to speak, of which the engineer has hitherto almost enjoyed the monopoly.  Let the architect put in his claim.  The material is plastic and ready to take any form that genius and taste may suggest, and in this way the motto which should characterize all true architecture, ‘Strength, commodity, and beauty,’ may be fully realized.”


From the Woolworth Building, you can see the future


Once the office buildings had skyrocketed, it was only a short while before the residences followed them up into the sky, not because people absolutely wanted to live that high up, but rather because going up gave the shortest commute. 


[Continued in Part 10.]