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World's Littlest Skyscraper (wikipedia.org)
131 points by benbreen 7 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 49 comments

> The key to McMahon's swindle, and his successful defense in the ensuing lawsuit was that legal documents listed the height as 480" as opposed to 480'. Investors didn't seem to notice, and McMahon never verbally stated that the actual height of the building would be 480 feet (150 m).[2][15][16] The proposed skyscraper depicted in the blueprints that he distributed (and which were approved by the investors) was clearly labeled as consisting of four floors and 480 inches (12 m)

This entire lengthy discussion is based upon the premise that the story is true. But in addition to Tom Scott's failure to find a historical contemporary source for any of it, mentioned elsewhere on this same page, there's the 2010 challenge to the article on the Wikipedia talk page.

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:World's_littlest_skyscrap...

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:World's_littlest_skyscrap...

It turns out that John Kelso was in the same boat as Tom Scott: having failed to find any contemporary evidence whatsoever for this.

All of the supposition in this thread about how it could have happened has the unstated premise that it even did happen in the first place, for which no supporting evidence has come to light.

The sad thing is that the article went through Good Article review and was rewritten with the intention of making it clear that the majority of the article was an unsubstantiated local myth; yet here we have people on Hacker News who have clearly not absorbed that from reading it. The rewrite has not achieved its goal.

The Wikipedia article certainly does not make clear which parts are fact and which are legend. There is a disclaimer early on, but after that, many statements are made and some of them are obviously factual, while others are related to the myth. After all, the building was built and it is 4 stories tall.

Was the legend just that the original plan was accurate, but misleading, when it could have been that the original plans actually represented a much larger building? Were there not really investors who claimed to have been misled? Was there a lawsuit or not? Seems like there should be some record of that if it happened.

If in fact the majority of these facts are possibly just made up or of questionable origin, there should be no discussion of the details beyond the statement that there is a local legend and its general substance. The detailed accounting of it should be omitted entirely, or moved to a subheading that delineates the entire discussion of the urban legend apart from the verifiable facts.

I cannot imagine such a swindle being attempted in the US today, much less successfully.

I feel a little sadness for that.

There is something attractive about a place where so many crazy things are possible. Not that I would trade my existence for that one, but I feel something akin to nostalgia for the wide-open possibilities of such a place.

I don't know, I look at the world of cryptocurrencies and things like NFTs and think, man, there are some pretty wild swindles going on right now! Things that Mr. McMahon would never imagined possible when he put 480" on those designs.

Crypto is already there. Swap a O and a 0 and you get a 31m swindle:


I do follow some of the shortsellers and read their reports on certain companies from time to time: America has no shortage of swindlers even today,only nowadays they have fancy job titles.

Nowadays similar things get out to the public and bored internet people pick them apart.

The best scams these days are hidden under NDA so you never hear of them (one hired someone to disprove maxwell’s equation as that was needed to run their over unity device. So he developed tests that could show if maxwell was right or wrong and collected the paycheck).

I feel like mistaking " for ' is understandable, but how do you not notice 4 floors when you're expecting 40?

Easy "The building will consist of 4Occupied floors." Especially since at the time old-style numerals were common and the number would look more like "4o" anyway. Just put a small space between the 4 and the lowercase o—just enough to be legally ambiguous.

The investors approved blueprints showing the correct dimensions and only 4 floors.

This would have easily been prevented by basic due diligence from the investors. Possibly that is why the courts ruled against them.

Back in those days, typewriters had a single key for the number 1 and the lowercase l. But they did have the O and 0 as different keys.

It is possible that they saw the 4 floors as "representative" of all the floors that would be built, and just expected that there would be 40.

Wichita Falls is pretty much on the Texas/Oklahoma border and that area was filled with oil money at that time. Only 10 years later, Tulsa Oklahoma was building 40+ floor skyscrapers. But prior to that, skyscrapers seemed to be limited to NYC, Philadelphia and Chicago.

The typewriter that I used in high school in the 80s (which dated back to at least the 30s if not earlier) only had the numerals 2–9. One typed l for 1 and O for 0. Typing numbers is not that common an occurrence in any event which made it easy for me to use old-style numerals in papers I wrote in college using LaTeX.

This makes me even more curious about which genius put O and 0 next to each other on the keyboard.

SF had skyscrapers prior to 1920 when this was built. Some of them were damaged in the 1906 earthquake. Perhaps you mean they were mostly associated with NYC, Chicago, etc?

Fun fact, because of that earthquake, there is a 160ft height restriction on certain types of construction in US building codes even to this day!

You are right of course. My apologies :)

There were no skyscrapers in Boston, LA, SF, Houston etc?

I wonder how safe Tulsa skyscrapers are now with all of the earthquakes Oklahoma is experiencing.

Blueprints are just as easy. Draw the first two floors, put in a gap capped with squiggly lines. Label the gap "omitted" or something, then draw the top floor and roof.

I have noticed a number of legal documents spelling out numbers.

40 (forty) floors say

Too late, investors already gave him money by then.

I'm not sure when they gave him the money, but it specifically mentions the investors approved the blueprints with only 4 floors.

I understand people can be lazy and make mistakes, but that's pretty egregious.

Think of the times though, and the engineering savvy of the average person back then.

A comparison for today might be to put the plans for a computer chip in front of an average non-technical small-time investor and then use slippery language to trick them into believing it is something it's not. Tell them it will be the next big thing and will return their money tenfold, and greed does the rest.

It's quite possible back then that the investors, having never seen a skyscraper - or maybe even a proper blueprint - just didn't know what they were looking at, never mind doing any kind of real due diligence.

I heard about a guy who was collecting investments for "innovative" windmills. They (actually) had a small prototype that could handle wind upto 150 mph. And, if scaled up to full size could produce "lots" of electricity. They just needed money to build and test a full size version.

The scam is that windmills don't actually scale very well. If you have 100 MW blowing at the blades, you need a tower that can handle 100 MW of force - or something like that.

Of course, what do I know? I am but a humble computer nerd.

Watt is a unit of power and not force, which is already a hint that things are more complicated than that, says another humble computer nerd

This is some "Spinal Tap" level humor.

If you want to see a fascinating skyscraper that is actually quite tall (overtall?) check out:


1/4 mile in height, but only 100' wide.

That's one expensive apostrophe.

I wonder if similar scams via smart-contracts exist yet.

Wow. It seems like the saga is on-going.


I wonder if “Tom Scott did a video on this” is the new “Simpsons already did it”?



Most interestingly, the upshot of his video is he could find no primary source validating the popular "swindle" story about the building.

There are no reliable sources that this was a scam or indeed any sources mentioning the building from the time. If this building gained investment on the basis of it being a 480 ft tall building then both the investors are complete idiots and the scam would have been judged as fraud.

The investors can't have done any due diligence at all. Why would there be any value to building at that scale at that location.

Building a 480 inch building whilst taking investment to build a 480 ft tower would clearly be shown as fraudulent.

I suspect this building has a more mundane explanation: a builder trying out some new techniques or a client that wanted a larger building but ran out of funding.

Short guys should try this on Tinder. "How tall are you?" "6 5". Then when they meet up, explain that you meant 65 inches and not 6 feet 5 inches.

For those, like me, who are not imperial-fluent:

65 inches is 165cm

6 foot 5 inches is 195cm

So interestingly, the difference is a foot.

Spinal Tap called...

> Spinal Tap called...

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=071cXxCNj5A

David St. Hubbins: "I think that the problem may have been that there was a Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf. That tended to understate the hugeness of the object."

A millionaire’s wife bought it once to save it from being demolished.

Honey, look what I bought! It was 75% off!

Should have been 90% off, given the number of floors.

Ah, but the land is a fixed cost.

Although I see it was built on land without discussion with the landowner.

Heh, most shophouses and plenty of standalone structures in SE Asia are 3 or 4 level structures built like this. Of course most are bigger, though I'm positive you'd find something thats smaller than this even just in Bangkok

"The Newby–McMahon Building has survived tornadoes, a fire, and decades of neglect.[29] The building is currently part of the Depot Square Historic District of Wichita Falls"

For something built as a scam it's held up reasonably well. McMahon may have cheated his investors, but he seems to have built a real building.

In my wife's hometown, I've been to this!

I live in Amarillo and never knew about this building. Will have to visit the next time I head that way.

I wonder what became of McMahon, and what he would think about this discussion.

How did that cost $3M to build?

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