Changing the Cities’ Skylines

Changing the Cities’ Skylines
Ellen Wilson: Economics, Discovery and Daily Life

Skill: Elementary School
Time Required: Two class periods


It wasn’t until the late 1800s that the skyscrapers began to alter the skyline of cities.  Until that point, buildings had only as many stories as the number of floors to which workers could easily climb the stairs!  The New York that Ellen saw as a young art student was not the same city that she knew as First Lady.


The purpose of this lesson is for students to consider how technology alters our lives and our landscapes as well as the specific technological advances that make the changes.    

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet Inventions timeline link Access to print reference materials


1.  Ask students how many flights of stairs they have climbed at one time, the tallest building they’ve ever been in, etc. 

2.  Explain that until the 1880s, few buildings were taller than 10 stories because the only way to build them was with brick and mortar and really thick lower walls to support the upper floors.

3.  Have them speculate about the things architects and builders need to consider as they plan tall buildings.  Keep the list on the board.

4.  Divide the class into 4 groups and assign the following topics, one to a group:

  • Bessemer process (Henry Bessemer)
  • George Fuller and the Tacoma Building (1889) and the Flatiron Building (1902)
  • Elisha Graves Otis and the hydraulic elevator
  • “Steel skeleton” construction technique

5.  Have students research the topics and prepare a report that answers the question:  What is the technological innovation and how did it contribute to the development of skyscrapers?

Extending the Lesson:

The teacher may wish to address the above questions and then assign students the task of researching the buildings labeled tallest in the world from 1890 to 1913 (World Building 1890, Masonic Temple 1892, Manhattan Life 1894, St. Paul Building 1898, Park Row Building 1899, Singer Building 1908, Met Life Tower 1909, Woolworth Building 1913).

Sources & Resources:

Print Resources:
  • See David Maccaulay’s The Way Things Work, for a discussion of elevators, escalators, steel, iron, heating, cooling, use of glass, etc.


This lesson was developed by Bette Brooks, Kent State University.