The word skyscraper originally referred to a nautical term tall mast or its main sail on a sailing ship. The term was first applied to buildings in the late 19th century as a result of public amazement at the tall buildings being built in Chicago and New York City.
The structural definition of the word skyscraper was refined later by architectural historians, based on engineering developments of the 1880s that had enabled construction of tall multi-story buildings. This definition was based on the steel skeleton—as opposed to constructions of load-bearing masonry, which passed their practical limit in 1891 with Chicago's Monadnock Building. Philadelphia's City Hall, completed in 1901, still holds claim as the world's tallest load-bearing masonry structure at 167 m (548 ft). The steel frame developed in stages of increasing self-sufficiency, with several buildings in Chicago and New York advancing the technology that allowed the steel frame to carry a building on its own. Today, however, many of the tallest skyscrapers are built almost entirely with reinforced concrete. Pumps and storage tanks maintain water pressure at the top of skyscrapers.
At the beginning of the 20th century, New York City was a center for the Beaux-Arts architectural movement, attracting the talents of such great architects as Stanford White and Carrere and Hastings. As better construction and engineering technology become available as the century progressed, New York became the focal point of the competition for the tallest building in the world. The city's striking skyline has been composed of numerous and varied skyscrapers, many of which are icons of 20th century architecture:
- The Flatiron Building, standing 285 ft (87 m) high, was one of the tallest buildings in the city upon its completion in 1902, made possible by its steel skeleton. It was one of the first buildings designed with a steel framework, and to achieve this height with other construction methods of that time would have been very difficult.
- The Woolworth Building, a neo-Gothic "Cathedral of Commerce" overlooking City Hall, was designed by Cass Gilbert. At 792 feet (241 m), it became the world's tallest building upon its completion in 1913, an honor it retained until 1930, when it was overtaken by 40 Wall Street.
- That same year, the Chrysler Building took the lead as the tallest building in the world, scraping the sky at 1,046 feet (319 m). More impressive than its height is the building's design, by William Van Alen. An art deco masterpiece with an exterior crafted of brick, the Chrysler Building continues to be a favorite of New Yorkers to this day.
- The Empire State Building, the first building to have more than 100 floors (it has 102), was completed the following year. It was designed by Shreve, Lamb and Harmon in the contemporary Art Deco style. The tower takes its name from the nickname of New York State. Upon its completion in 1931, it took the top spot as tallest building, and at 1,472 feet (448 m) to the very top of the antenna, towered above all other buildings until 1973.
- When the World Trade Center towers were completed in 1973 many felt them to be sterile monstrosities, even though they were the world's tallest buildings at that time. But most New Yorkers became fond of "The Twin Towers", and after the initial horror for the loss of life in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks there came great sadness for the loss of the buildings. The Empire State Building is again the tallest building in New York City.
Momentum in setting records passed from the Unites States to other nations in 1997 with the opening of the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The record for world's tallest building remained in Asia with the opening of Taipei 101 in Taipei, Taiwan, in 2004. A number of architectural records will likely reside in the Middle East with the opening of the Burj Dubai in Dubai, UAE.
With this geographical transition a change can be seen in the approach to skyscraper design. For much of the twentieth century large buildings such as the Sears Tower and World Trade Center (New York) took the form of simple geometrical shapes. They were designed as large boxes. This reflected the "international style" or modernist philosophy shaped by Bauhaus architects early in the century. By the 1990s skyscraper design began to exhibit postmodernist influences. The newest record setters, though modern, incorporate traditional architectural features associated with the part of the world where they stand. Taipei 101 and the Petronas Towers recall the traditions of Asian pagoda architecture even as the Burj Dubai incorporates motifs from traditional Arab art. The result in each case is a building that does not look equally at home in any skyline in any city in the world, but a building that reflects its own continent and culture.