A Brief History of Steel Construction

Steel Blog Graphic History

Published by on June 18, 2018 10:12 am

Steel construction offers several advantages: it is structurally sound, has a high strength-to-weight ratio and is very durable. These characteristics of steel make it ideal for constructing buildings of all sizes. Let’s take a look at how steel came to be such a popular choice today for constructing buildings of all shapes and sizes.

Steel’s use as a construction material roughly follows the same timeline as steel innovation in general – especially as railroads became a popular mode of transport. In the 1800s, there were three forms of “ferrous metals” in use: wrought iron, cast iron, and steel. Wrought iron was very familiar to blacksmiths who had been working with the material for years. While we now think of it as mostly decorative, in the Victorian era, it was also commonly used as a building material. Cast iron, strong but brittle, was more widely used for cooking and farming but was not very appropriate for building. Steel was expensive to produce and was used for higher-end items like watches, swords, and scythes.

In 1855, the Bessemer Method, created by Sir Henry Bessemer in England, made the production of steel more efficient. It allowed for the creation of steel with good tensile strength, however, wrought iron continued to be the more prevalent choice for iron-based building of the period. By 1879, inventor Sidney Thomas mastered a method to remove phosphorous from steel – increasing its quality and its possibilities. His “Basic Process” meant that steel could finally be produced more cheaply so, it’s production rapidly grew. His method became popular in Europe and, by the 1880s, steel quality became more consistent.

In the United States, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed thousands of timber buildings. After the fire, Chicago responded by creating stricter building regulations by requiring non-combustible construction materials including brick, stone, marble, and limestone. Other building solutions were cast iron and wrought iron paired with brickwork, but as the city grew, Chicago needed to look to steel construction to go skyward.

The Home Insurance Building in Chicago, completed in 1885, was a 10-story building widely recognized as the first to use steel skeleton frame construction with reinforced concrete. When it weighed only one-third of what a traditional masonry building of its size would have weighed, city officials halted construction to investigate its safety. Demolished in 1931, the building is seen as the father of the skyscraper. The Rand McNally Building in Chicago was built in 1890 as the first all-steel framed skyscraper. Designed by Burnham and Root, it stood ten stories and cost $1 million to build at the time. It was demolished in 1911.

By the early 1900s, advances in technology and production yielded a steel product that was consistently stronger. Railroads thrived and structural steel became the building material by which others would be judged. From 1875 to 1920 steel production in America grew from 380,000 tons to 60 million tons annually, making the U.S. the world leader. This allowed magnates like Charles Schwab and Andrew Carnegie to become some of the wealthiest men of the time. The incredibly rapid growth was built on a solid technological base and the ongoing development of office buildings, factories, railroads, bridges and more.

By 1913, America was ready to reach higher into the sky and the Woolworth Building, a 60-story tower, was built in New York. For a time, it was the tallest building in the world and was looked to as a model of pioneering American steel-frame construction. By 1928, the Chrysler Building was competing with 40 Wall Street and the Empire State Building to become the world’s tallest building. Today, the Chrysler Building remains the world’s tallest steel-supported brick building.

By the 1940s, hundreds of thousands of people worked in American steel mills, and steel was being regularly used in building construction – including those built by Steel, LLC. Founded in 1947, Steel, LLC grew from humble roots into one of the nation’s leading structural engineering and steel suppliers. Since then, we have had the privilege of being a part of significant steel construction projects across the country from Nellis Air Force Base to Annapolis, the Marriott Marquis hotel in Atlanta and Jewish Hospital in Louisville, KY, to the Fort Carson Air Traffic Control Tower and the Fort Campbell UAS Hangar.

Steel, LLC is a leading structural steel construction firm, headquartered in Atlanta. Steel, LLC produces fabricated steel to frame all types of conventional and complex steel buildings, and specializes in suburban mid-rise office buildings, corporate campuses, aviation structures, and steel trusses. We are AISC certified in conventional steel structures and complex building structures, with a sophisticated paint (multiple-coat system) endorsement.  If you’re interested in learning more about how steel can benefit your next project, please get in touch with one of our experts today.


Steel Construction Highlights Timeline

1883     Brooklyn Bridge completed

1885     Home Insurance Building complete, often seen as the first skyscraper

1889     Eiffel Tower completed

1912     Woolworth Building completed

1930     The Chrysler Building

1931     Empire State Building completed

1947     Steel, LLC founded

1958     Seagram Building completed

1960s   Steel completed several major Atlanta projects including Phipps Plaza shopping                  center, the World Congress Center, and the CNN building.

1971     U.S. Steel Tower completed

1973     Willis Tower (Sears Tower) completed

2009     Burj Khalifa completed