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Reaching for the Sky: the History of Structural Steel

May 29, 2019

The modernity of today owes a great deal to the long history of steel, and all the innovators and inventors who strove to make industry as productive and sustainable as it is today. Without the developments made towards structural steel over centuries, the images we use to define our modernity today, of skylines dominated by skyscrapers, would not exist.

The history of steel dates back to ancient times, when people from Anatolia all the way to China were using steel to create daily products.

However, steel only came to be used as a construction material with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

As railroads became a popular mode of transport in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, ferrous metals became highly sought after and widely produced. During this time, steel was still considered expensive to produce and thus was only used in the creation of higher-end items such as watches. This was still a long way away from structural steel.

In 1855, the modern era of steelmaking was kickstarted by Henry Bessemer, an English inventor who created the Bessemer Method, allowing him to produce steel in large quantities cheaply. Numerous other inventors, including famous names like Sir Charles William Siemens, built on this method and improved the steelmaking process. However, wrought iron still dominated steel as the preferred iron-based construction material.  

The Industrial Revolution saw cities grow, increasing revenue and productivity but also becoming denser and more unsafe. In 1871, a single fire in a barn started in the southwest side of the city of Chicago, with the help of weather conditions, an abundance of wooden buildings, and poor city planning, spread rapidly to the city center and destroyed thousands of buildings, killing 300 people and causing around $200 million in damages.

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 saw the city undertake a “Great Rebuilding,” looking to non-combustible construction materials to help them reconstruct the city. As the city continued to grow and space became more limited, the city of Chicago realized their buildings needed to expand skyward.

This is where structural steel begins to enter the picture as the dominant construction material.

In 1885, the 10-storey Home Insurance Building in Chicago, recognized as the world’s first skyscraper, became the first building to use a steel skeleton frame and reinforced concrete. Despite its height, it weighed only one-third of a traditional masonry building. Five years later, The Rand McNally Building in Chicago became first all-steel framed skyscraper. By 1928, steel construction helped three American buildings, the Chrysler Building, 40 Wall Street, and the Empire State Building to be recognized as the tallest buildings in the world.

Structural steel became the building material by which others would be judged. By the early 1900s, steelmaking centres in Canada had been established in Hamilton and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and in Sydney, Nova Scotia. The years after the Second World War saw a massive boom in demand for steel.

Today, Canada produces 1150 thousand tonnes of steel annually.

Scarboro Steel Works is a leading Canadian company in structural steel production, working with great Canadian companies and landmarks such as the Pearson International Airport, Bank of Montreal, and Eaton Centre just to name a few.  We continue to push the boundaries of steel production, in the hopes that the continued advancement of this incredible material will continue to benefit us all.