The word skyscraper was first applied to buildings in the late 19th century, in response to peoples amazement at the tall buildings being constructed in New York City. The definition of the word skyscraper was later refined by architectural historians, based on engineering developments of the 1880s that had enabled construction of tall multiple story buildings.
This definition was based on the steel skeleton construction —as opposed to constructions of load-bearing masonry, which passed their practical limit in 1891 with the Chicago's Monadnock Building.
Philadelphia's City Hall, completed in 1901, is the world's tallest load-bearing masonry structure - a title to which it still holds. The steel frame developed in stages of increasing self-sufficiency, with several buildings in New York and Chicago advancing the technology process that allowed the steel frame to carry a building on its own.
However today many of the tallest skyscrapers are built more or less entirely with reinforced concrete with steel rods latticing blocks together.
Originally, skyscraper was a nautical term for a tall mast or sail on a sailing ship. A skyscraper taller than 300 metres (1,000 feet) may sometimes be referred to as a supertall.
The arbitrary term skyscraper should not be confused with the slightly less arbitrary term highrise, defined by the Emporis Data Committee as "a building which is 35 metres [115 feet] or greater in height, and is divided at regular intervals into occupiable floors".
All skyscrapers are highrises, but only the tallest highrises are skyscrapers. Habitability separates skyscrapers from towers and masts. Some structural engineers define a highrise as any vertical construction for which wind is a more significant load factor than weight is. Note that this criterion fits not only highrises but some other tall structures, such as towers.
The crucial developments for modern skyscrapers were steel, glass, reinforced concrete, water pumps, and elevators/lifts. Until the 19th century, buildings of over six stories were very rare. So many flights of stairs were impractical for inhabitants, and water pressure was usually insufficient to supply running water above 15 metres (50 feet). Despite this lack of sanitation, high rise housing dates back to the 1600s in some places.
In Edinburgh, Scotland for instance, the defensive city wall defined the boundaries of the city. With limited land area for development the houses increased in height. Buildings of 11 storeys were common records exist of buildings as high as 14 storeys. These building predated modern concrete and steel and so were made entirely from stone. Owing to the poor sanitation and high density of population in 1645 a plague struck Edinburgh and decimated the population. Following the plague major remodeeling of the old town took place and many of the buildings were demolished. Many of the stone-built structures can still be seen today in the old town of Edinburgh particularly in the 'Wynds' and 'Closes' just off the Royal Mile.
The weight-bearing components of skyscrapers differ substantially from those of other buildings. Buildings up to about four stories can be supported by their walls, while skyscrapers are larger buildings that must be supported by a skeletal frame. The walls hang from this frame like curtains—hence the architectural term curtain wall for tall systems of glass that are laterally supported by these skeletal frames. Special consideration must also be made for wind loads.
While the first modern skyscraper is usually considered the ten-story Home Insurance Building, in Chicago, built in 1884–1885; its height is not considered unusual or very impressive today, so that, if the building were newly constructed today, it would not be called a skyscraper. Another candidate for the title is the 1890 twenty-story New York World Building, in New York City.
Surprisingly for some, the United Kingdom also had its share of early skyscrapers. The first building to fit the engineering definition meanwhile was the then largest hotel in the world, the Grand Midland Hotel, now known as St Pancras Chambers in London completed in 1873 and 82 metres (269 feet) tall. The 12 floor Shell Mex House in London, with 58 metres (190 feet), was completed a year after the Home Insurance Building and managed to beat it in both height and floor count. By more modern standards, the first true skyscraper may be New York City's Woolworth Building.
Most early skyscrapers emerged in the land-strapped areas of New York, London, and Chicago toward the end of the 19th century. London builders soon found their height limited due to complaint from Queen Victoria, rules that continued to exist with few exceptions until the 1950s; concerns about aesthetics and fire safety had likewise hampered the development of skyscrapers across continental Europe for the first half of the twentieth century. Developers in Chicago also found themselves hampered by laws limiting height to about 40 storeys, leaving New York to be the world leader in developing supertall buildings. From the 1930s onwards, skyscrapers also began to appear in South America (São Paulo, Buenos Aires) and in Asia (Shanghai, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur).
Immediately after World War II, the Soviet Union planned eight massive skyscrapers dubbed "Stalin Towers" for Moscow; seven of these were eventually built. The rest of Europe also slowly began to permit skyscrapers, starting with Madrid in Spain during the 1950s. Finally, supertall skyscrapers also began to appear in Africa, the Middle East and Oceania (mainly Australia) from the late 1950s and the early 1960s.
Today, no city has more buildings of over 150 metres than Hong Kong (201 buildings over 150 m). Since the 1980s, Hong Kong has gained several very tall skyscrapers, including the Bank of China Tower and Two International Finance Centre. New York City, home of the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and the former World Trade Center, comes in at number two with 189 buildings over 150m. Chicago's skyline was not allowed to grow until the height limits were relaxed in 1960; over in the next fifteen years, many towers were built, including the massive 442-meter (1,451-foot) Sears Tower. Together, Chicago, Hong Kong, and New York are considered by some to be the "great three" skylines of the world.
Today, skyscrapers are an increasingly common sight where land is scarce, as in the centres of big cities, because of the high ratio of rentable floor space per area of land. Skyscrapers are also considered the ultimate symbols of a city's economic power, a view first held by New Yorkers, and now by developers in many newly developed Asian economies.