The smallest skyscraper in the world

According to Emporis, a real estate data company, a skyscraper is a “multi-story building whose architectural height is at least 100 metres”. By that measure, the Newby-McMahon building in Wichita Falls, Texas, which is widely known as the “world’s smallest skyscraper”, isn’t actually a skyscraper at all.

In fact, it’s not even close – the building is four storeys and 12 metres tall, which in most peoples’ minds makes it little more than a house with ideas above its station. When it was built in 1919, skyscrapers weren’t reaching the heights they are today – but even then, the Newby-McMahon wouldn’t have cut an impressive figure next to the 241 metre Woolworth building in New York, the world’s tallest building at the time.

Unfortunately for its investors, the building’s limited stature came as shock to pretty much everyone – apart from the man who built it.

J. D. McMahon was the owner of the Wichita Falls oil company, whose offices occupied a one-story brick building on the corner of Seventh and La Salle. Next door was a vacant lot, and during the local boom sparked by the discovery of oil in 1912, he decided to meet the city’s growing demand for office space by turning it into a new skyscraper. The building would, plans appeared to show, be 480 feet (146 metres) tall – not bad for a small city barely past its 40th birthday. 

McMahon drew up blueprints and plans to show investors, who promptly gave him a total of $200,000 (around $2.7m at today’s prices) to get going on construction. Preferring to keep things in-house, he decided to use his own construction company to build the structure. 

This might be why it took the investors a little while to realise they’d been had. Slightly too late, it became apparent that McMahon was not, in fact, building a 480 foot tower: he was building a 480 inch one. The investors tried to bring a lawsuit against him, but the judge found that they didn’t have a case: they’d signed off on the original blueprints. Sure enough, these promised that the building would be 480″ tall, and not, as they’d assumed, 480′.

Construction was completed, if you can call it that, in 1919. The building was 12 feet long, 9 feet wide and 40 feet tall. The elevator company had pulled out, so there wasn’t even a way to get from one floor to the next. And McMahon hadn’t even asked for permission to build on the land. None of this bothered him, however – he disappeared from the town, and probably the state, shortly after, presumably with a good chunk of the investors’ $200,000 in his back pocket.

In his absence, the building became the city’s problem. During the oil boom, it had been an embarrassment; during the depression that followed, it was a liability. For a while, the building was occupied by two firms (the extra-narrow stairs that were added later took up around a quarter of the floor space); later it was boarded up.

For the rest of the 20th century the block was occupied by a string of barber shops and cafes, and on multiple occasions it was scheduled for demolition, but it somehow survived to be palmed off onto a local heritage society. However, the building remained controversial. In 1996, Ralph Harvey, of the Wichita County Historical Commission told a reporter from Texnews, “I’ve never understood why some people make such a big deal about it. But about half of the people around here want to save it. The other half would prefer it just to be hauled off.”

In the end, the first half won out, and the building was restored to its former, er, glory. Today it’s a local tourist attraction, with an antiques dealership on the ground floor and an artist’s studio upstairs.

The Newby-McMahon has often been used as a symbol of the gullibility of the boom era: of the eventual realisation that no, the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, the petroleum boom won’t last, and this building is not, by any definition, a skyscraper. Yet Fodor’s 2008 guide to Texas, which prides itself on highlighting “the best this big and beautiful state has to offer”, names the Newby-McMahon building as a must-see attraction. If those investors had known, maybe they’d have hung on to it.


Macs breathe

A rare lecture by Jony Ive in London back in the late 1990s where he explained that, when you were trying to sleep, the old sleep LEDs of laptops would blink on and off harshly, lighting up your entire bedroom each time which made it harder for some people to get to sleep and irritated people.

They therefore set out to create a more relaxing light which was not so aggressive and seemed more anthropomorphic.

As simple as this may sound, it meant going to the expense of creating a new controller chip which could drive the LED and change its brightness when the main CPU was shut down, all without harming battery life.

Most previous sleep LEDs were just driven directly from the system chipset and could only switch on or off.

Apple carried out research into breathing rates during sleep and used that figure to derive a model for how the light should behave to create the most relaxing atmosphere and make the product seem more human than robot.

IIRC it was introduced with the first plastic iBook G3 and has been with us ever since.


How not to be the underdog

How do the underdogs of the world like David beat a giant like Goliath? Goliath Is the Weak One

David-Goliath fights make good underdog stories, but we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong.  Davids are only considered underdogs because we can’t see their strengths, like agility and accuracy, and Goliaths are the ones who are weak, as they are huge targets who are clumsy and slow. Some disadvantages are actually advantages; underdogs that “win” are never as outclassed as they initially seem.

Don’t Play By Goliath’s Rules

A David can beat a Goliath by not playing by Goliath’s rules. In warfare, that means using guerilla tactics. In basketball, that means playing a full-court press defense. The full-court press, usually a desperate late-game gambit, involves defending a team aggressively for the entire length of the court, as opposed to a more conventional half-court approach. A successful press hinges on athleticism and effort, and the tactic can be used to out-hustle a more talented opponent. Here are two examples: the Kentucky University teams under coach Rick Pitino and a Bay-Area 12-year-old girls team improbably contended for a championship.

MLK Was a David

Martin Luther King and other leaders were successful underdogs because they refused to engage with Goliath on Goliath’s terms. Bill Hudson’s image of Walter Gadsden, a Parker High School student who was grabbed by a police officer while a German Shepherd lunged at his stomach has always been misunderstood: the officer was trying to restrain his dogs while Gadsden was the aggressor. The picture, however, galvanized public opinion and led to widespread support of the protesters in Birmingham. That had always been the plan, and on that day the leaders of the civil rights movement were trying to get just such a photograph.

The “Big Fish in a Little Pond” Advantage

The conventional wisdom is that some universities are better academically than others. However, the quality of the school is less a predictor of individual success than individual merit is. The best students from mediocre schools almost always prove more successful than good students from the elite schools. This is because being a big fish in a little pond has significant advantages. Little ponds encourage individuality and innovation while also providing support and community. Being surrounded by the best students in a big pond can be discouraging much in the same way that being surrounded by happy people can exacerbate depression. This is why happier countries have higher suicide rates than unhappy countries.

Advantages Have a Tipping Point

For both Davids and Goliaths, advantages are rarely linearly related to success. That is, something beneficial is not beneficial ad infinitum. Most advantages have a middle point where they are most effective. Too much can be just as harmful as too little. Class size and income are factors that are universally considered advantages; but past a certain point and they become disadvantages. The optimal amount of students in a class is approximately 25; more than that, and students get less individual attention. However, less than 25 students in a class is too intimate for autonomy and too small to foster discussion. Likewise, parenting is most difficult for the very poor or very rich. The middle class are comfortable enough that they do not have to work at the expense of their parenting, but not so wealthy that their money makes it impossible to set limits.