Supertall buildings are buildings that reach between 300 and 600 m tall. My question is regarding the possibility of constructing such a building with a level of development and understanding limited to that of the world in the 18th century.

From what I've researched so far, a combination of techniques commonly seen on Gothic cathedrals and other more ancient buildings, such as the pyramids, could theoretically be used in conjunct to achieve such a feat (setbacks, pointed arches, buttresses, etc..).

However, what really boggles me is how they would actually put those things into practice. Did the 18th century had the capability to actually raise buildings/towers to such a height? Could they elevate men and materials and then work them into a building/tower?

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    $\begingroup$ I'll wait for a civil to chime in, but I'm guessing one of the biggest things holding them back isn't the strength of materials, but rather the firmness of the ground/foundation/bedrock. Since I'm assuming this wouldn't be built using steel girders/reinforcement, it would have to be much heavier, and would put that much more strain on the ground it was built on. $\endgroup$ Jan 18 '18 at 6:36
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    $\begingroup$ You never explicitly say the building needs to be free standing. There are certainly 300+ meter cliff faces that a building could be anchored to. This would make it a much easier construction challenge. Or even carve the building into the rock face. $\endgroup$
    – Lex
    Jan 18 '18 at 7:01
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch: uhm, sorry, but that is rubbish. Here is one from 1520 that is over 100m tall: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magdeburg_Cathedral If you google some you find tons of examples over 100m. Heck, there is one in my town en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bern_Minster (although in gothic times it was maybe only 75m high, not the 100m it is today). $\endgroup$
    – fgysin
    Jan 18 '18 at 7:14
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    $\begingroup$ The pyramids crippled the Egyptians economically and then remained the tallest building on earth for millennia. The answer is: no, people had bigger fish to fry and weren't completely ignorant to economics. There was this insane ruler in Bavaria (ludgew 2) at about that time, check out what he build - going tall was not in fashion, he went pretty and not that expensive. I don't believe this is an engineering question but an economic one. The buildings appeared once they were economically viable for multiple reasons $\endgroup$
    – Raditz_35
    Jan 18 '18 at 9:04
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    $\begingroup$ Strength of materials really isn't an issue, if you limit yourself to pyramids. After all, a pyramid and a mountain are both just rock :-) Now whether it's economically feasible for your society to construct one is another question. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jan 18 '18 at 19:18


The Eiffel Tower was built in 1887-1889 and was 300m tall. It was made of mostly Puddled Iron.

So could that have been made in the 1700's ?

Well in 1781 the world's first Iron bridge was created. A thing of rare beauty, IMO, this was no small construction, spanning over 30 meters.

So what's the difference between using the same techniques to make a larger vertical structure and actually building the Eiffel Tower ?

Short answer: technique and material.

While Iron Bridge is indeed made of Iron, it's not Wrought Iron, but the more brittle Cast Iron. Cast Iron would probably not work for a tall vertical structure. Indeed even in flat structures (like early railway tracks), its brittleness was a major flaw that held up development or railways for decades.

Wrought Iron is the thing we need. Puddled Iron is a type of Wrought Iron and it has the mechanical properties required to build a tall load bearing structure (and durable railway tracks as it happens, although steel rapidly replaced wrought iron when it became available in quantity and quality).

The first Iron Bridge (always capitalized) was made using wood working techniques. The joints are all wood working joints. They used glue or mortar (and some pretty weird stuff it was), to get it to stay together.

There were basic processes that could produce small quantities of this material for many centuries, but the processes required to make it in large, relatively pure and machinable forms did not arise properly until much later.

As for how you'd build this tall, well the Eiffel Tower and these examples of photos of its construction should explain it. You start at the bottom and build up!

So in principle, yes, you could have made a very tall iron-based structure in the late 1700's. But you'd have needed some small advances in the discovery of some techniques, say fifty years worth.

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    $\begingroup$ To my understanding the Eiffel tower was exactly to demonstrate that now the frenchmen could do this, which had been impossible before. $\endgroup$ Jan 18 '18 at 14:51
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    $\begingroup$ Are latticework towers -- basically a big, open erector set construction -- validly considered buildings? Because if they are then every radio tower is also a building. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Jan 18 '18 at 16:45
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    $\begingroup$ First, the Eiffel tower is not a building. You could call it a structure, but it is not a building. The difference is far from trivial, a building requires many things that a mere structure does not. Secondly, the Eiffel tower was cutting-edge, state of the art when it was built, at the end of the 19th century. (In fact it was quickly declared a wonder of the modern world). The difference between it and the state-of-the-art for the 18th century was not merely "some small advances in techniques", it was 100 years of steady advances. $\endgroup$ Jan 18 '18 at 17:31
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    $\begingroup$ Of interesting note: The Eiffel Tower was the world's tallest man-made structure when it was completed, surpassing the Washington Monument (completed 5 years earlier) by over 77%. It held the record for 41 years, until the Chrysler Building surpassed it in 1930. $\endgroup$ Jan 19 '18 at 1:06
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure how you went from 'needs late 18th Century technology plus ~50 years of development' (which is IMO optimistic) to 'can be built with 18th Century technology' $\endgroup$
    – walrus
    Jan 19 '18 at 9:18

I don't wan't to replace the good answer provided before, but:

Don't forget about the lift/elevator!

The first real lifts were put in use in the second part of the XIXs century (source:wikipedia). So if you don't have lifts in your building, the users will have to climb by foot.

You can estimate that a median stairs climbing rate is of about 0.26 m/s. So, if your building is of 450 meters, you will need about half an hour to get to the top of it. And you'll probably be sweating, so you'll need a shower! Wait! how do you pump the water that high?

  • $\begingroup$ I kills the idea as a dwelling building, but it still could exist as pure hubris or fonctional (defensive?) building. After all, it take half an hour to climb the stairs, but rope and pulley can lift food or amunition in minutes $\endgroup$
    – Madlozoz
    Jan 18 '18 at 18:14
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    $\begingroup$ Wells over 100m existed, so plumbing probably could have been worked out, and if you have the same square footage as a typical city inside you might not have to ever do the whole stairs in one go. $\endgroup$
    – user25818
    Jan 18 '18 at 19:18
  • $\begingroup$ This is how they build high structures in medieval times according to medieval approach to "let's build high tower". Babel in this case upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0d/… they didn't use and made "real" lift because they didn't need one. It's not like they made a lift and then "hmmm how were gonna use it and what for?"" $\endgroup$ Jan 19 '18 at 15:50
  • $\begingroup$ @SZCZERZOKŁY I didn't mean a crane to move construction material up. I mean a lift to move people up and down. Going upstairs is difficult, so from a certain height, you need a lift. Or, as the other comment suggested, you need to live in the tower. Really, it's just about commute time. $\endgroup$
    – Legisey
    Jan 19 '18 at 18:51

If they could have, they probably would have.

Tall buildings have always been vanity projects, and the most vain have always been the cathedrals. That's where you spend your money if you want to show the world how great and pious you are.

Castles (the only other deliberately imposing large buildings being built in the same period and the same regions) are more practical, they mostly top out in the 35-40m range. The cathedrals topped out at 150m with the now lost Lincoln Cathedral spire said to have been 160m. The first building to take the "tallest in the world" title from the Great Pyramid, it wouldn't have lost that title from 1311 until the Eiffel Tower if the spire hadn't fallen down in an Earthquake.

Construction was a stone tower base, 83m, with a nearly 80m wooden structured spire on top. The principle of the spire is simply to show how tall you can build a structure. The taller you build it the richer and more powerful you are. Hence my initial statement, if they could have built them taller, they would have.

  • $\begingroup$ Nice answer but the comparation to castles is misleading, as since the development of effective artillery high castles became very vulnerable and were replaced by lower, sturdier fortifications. So, the highest castles were not very modern and not representative of the last technology of the day (but I agree with the rest of the post that, even if they tried to, castles would not have been high enough to meet OP criteria). $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    Jan 19 '18 at 0:06
  • $\begingroup$ @SJuan76, I mention castles because they're the only other large, deliberately imposing, buildings being built in the same period in the same regions. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Jan 19 '18 at 7:58

The tallest tower built by a private individual during the 18th century was probably the central tower of William Beckford's Fonthill Abbey, which was built and rebuilt several times to heights between 200 and 300 feet (60.96 to 91.44 meters). Presumably a wealthier institution or government could have built a much taller tower if motivated to.

According to legend, there was a medieval Chinese building towering about 300 meters tall, though killjoy archaeologists believe it was less than half as tall.

See posts 88, 89 on page 9 here:


The Yongning Pagoda was described in Record of the Buddhist Monasteries in Loyang to be 90 Zhang high and 100 Zhang with the spire, or 330 meters (1082.68 feet), but in the commentary of the Waterways Classic "only" 49 Zhang or 163 meters (534.777 feet). Archaeologist Yang Honxun who excavated its foundations believed it was about 147 meters (482.283 feet) tall.

Tallest building possible by the Roman Empire2




It seems to me that building a somewhat taller and wider and flat topped version of the Great pyramid and then building a somewhat taller version of Yongning Pagoda on top of it might be enough to reach or barely exceed 300 meters height.

Ancient Roman writers claimed that the destroyed tomb of Lars Porsena stood 200 meters tall. Certainly a Roman Emperor could have built a taller structure than the king of a Etruscan city state could have built, but nobody knows how tall the tomb actually was.

It has been suggested that for reasons of prestige Emperor Claudius must have built his lighthouse at Ostia, port of Rome, even taller than the Pharos of Alexandria, which is believed to have been 120-137 meters tall.

Tallest building possible by the Roman Empire2

18th century architects could have "cheated" by building a tower on top of a hill of stone and then cutting away at the stone hill until it looked like the lower stories of the tower. In The Lord of The Rings The White Tower in Minas Tirith stood 1,000 feet (304.8 meters) above the plain, being 300 feet (91.44 meters) tall with its base 700 feet (213.36 meters) above the plain on the seventh level of the city that was carved out of a conical hill.

Anyway, it seems theoretically possible that a sufficiently wealthy client and a sufficiently brilliant architect could combine to built a structure 300 meters tall or slightly over with 18th century technology.


It could be. But for what?

Mentioned Eiffel tower was build to stand just for a few months, and it's only reason to exist was "because we can". There was no need to have such high building.

Now the only reason to have high building is to have a large stacked up space on rather small plot of land. And of course "because we can and have money to prove that".

In the 18th century when you wanted to show that you have the money you build horizontal. So the food bring to you by your servants from kitchen is already cold when they get to the dining room (Klaus Voormann said that about design of Harrison's Friar Park).

There was no need to go 300 metres up and down if you could go 300m on flat surface surrounded by garden.

Also in 1563 Breughel painted his "Tower of Babel", in 1679 Athanasius Kircher published his "Turris Babel", that show not only the method that such building could be made but also the general knowledge of possibility of such high structures.


Washington Monument

The biggest hindering factor in building tall buildings is useable floor space. Elevator shafts, stairways, support structure all take away from valuable floor space available for offices. Economics was a deciding factor in many buildings and most of them are only supposed to occupy a city block.

One other limiting factor, which still is in place today, is the rope used for elevators. There's a finite length to what is useable. To go up 900m, you could not create a cable durable enough for that height. So you would need to create a series of elevator shafts to allow what height that can be achieved.

In the case of the Washington Monument, you have a building where construction started in 1848 and tops out at 555 feet tall (169m), but no floor space. The monument is filled with ironwork, consisting of its stairs, elevator columns and associated tie beams, none of which supports the weight of the stonework.

If these are not factors in your building design, then the sky is the limit.

Ryugyong Hotel

Ryugyong Hotel

I'm using this as an example because it's 330 meters tall, but a wide pyramid shape. It obviously occupies more than a city block. It's using concrete and steel, but one could use stone and iron as a support material. a combination of a solid rock core and exterior support walls would give you height. With a wide enough base, you end up with useable floor space which is offset by the support.

Good luck.

Washington Monument Blueprint


Alternative view here

They probably could have if the architectural skills of ancient civilizations had been brought to greater fruition instead of abandoning them.

Now, don't get me wrong, ancient civilizations like India and Egypt were capable of producing such breathtaking gigantic structures that we think thy were built by aliens.

For example, there are temple towers in India that are 200ft tall, built as far back as the 11th Century AD and still standing

Imagine what could have been achieved if this deep architectural knowledge had been preserved across generations instead of being forgotten in the midst of conquests and plundering!

Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_tallest_Gopurams

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    $\begingroup$ The one you've linked is 200ft tall, not 200m. The Great Pyramid of Giza was only about 150m tall. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Jan 18 '18 at 20:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Separatrix whoops! guess I was in too much of a hurry! thanks for pointing that out $\endgroup$
    – Raghav
    Jan 20 '18 at 19:39

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