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Skyscrapers wouldn’t exist without prime invention

How technology, land prices conspired to change history

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For centuries, the drudgery of having to climb long flights of stairs ensured that few buildings were more than four or five stories high. Even at that, the least desirable dwellings were usually those on the top floor -- just the opposite of our modern preference. This idea held true until the late 19th century, when elevators began to appear in multistory buildings. Yet the elevator isn't quite as modern an invention as you might think. The Roman architect Vitruvius reported that Archimedes built his first elevator around 236 B.C. In 1743, Louis XV commissioned a personal lift to link his apartment in Versailles with that of his mistress. Eighty years later, the painter Thomas Horner and the architect Decimus Burton collaborated on an "ascending room" that hoisted visitors to a 37-meter-high platform from which they could view the London skyline. The general public remained understandably wary of such devices, since a single broken rope could send the hapless pa...