Today is the birthday of Gustave Eiffel who was born in 1832 in the Côte-d’Or in France. It’s pretty obvious what Eiffel is famous for, but before his work on the Eiffel Tower, he was an engineer who was really great at designing bridges. If you needed a bridge across a deep river valley, he was your man. He knew all about the properties of his materials and how to build a structure that could stand heavy wind resistance. As well as building bridges in France and elsewhere in Europe, he also designed bridges as far away as Egypt, Peru and Vietnam. In 1879, he also designed a series of bridges in kit form that could be shipped out to areas with poor infrastructure that could be put together easily, without the need for highly trained engineers. In 1886, he designed the dome of the Astronomical Observatory in Nice which, at 73 ft (22.4m) wide, was then the largest dome in the world.
Eiffel was good at building big, and he was good at building strong. In 1881, he was contacted by Auguste Batholdi, the designer of the Statue of Liberty. He needed some help with the internal structure of the statue. His chief engineer, who had suggested using a brick pier inside the statue, unfortunately died and, even more unfortunately, left no indication of how he thought that would work. Eiffel was selected because of his expertise with wind resistance. He designed a four legged pylon that had two spiral staircases inside so visitors would be able to climb up to the crown and a forty-foot long ladder to reach the torch. He designed it with a secondary skeleton so that it would be able to move slightly in the winds in New York Harbor and expand in the heat without cracking. The whole statue was put together at Eiffel’s works in Paris before it was dismantled and shipped to New York.
The original idea to build the famous tower did not come from Eiffel. The first plans were drawn up by two men called Koechlin and Nouguier. It was to be a centrepiece in the 1889 Exposition Universelle, a world fair which would commemorate the centenary of the storming of the Bastille. At first Eiffel was not that keen, but when some decorative arches, a glass pavilion and a cupola were suggested, he became more interested.
Once the design was finalised and the site chosen, people started to complain about it. Some people thought it would be impossible to build a three hundred metre high tower. Others just thought it would be ugly. There was a significant amount of protest and a group was formed called the ‘Committee of the Three Hundred’. One member for each offensive metre of the proposed monstrosity. The basic problem was that it was just too big. They called it a ‘giant black smokestack’. They did not like the thought of the tower dwarfing all of the beautiful buildings of their city and said: “…all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream… we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.” But it was all a bit late by then.
Work was begun in 1887 and it took two years, two months and five days to construct. It was not quite open to the public in time for the opening of the World Fair on May 6th 1889. When it did finally open on May 15th, the lifts weren’t quite ready, but that did not deter 30,000 visitors who braved the 1,710 step climb to the top. The lifts were soon in operation and the tower was a huge success. Over the course of the exhibition there were 1,896,987 visitors.
The tower was never meant to be a permanent fixture, it was only meant to stand for twenty years. But then it proved to be an incredibly useful radio mast, so it stayed. It has survived being sold twice by a con artist for scrap metal in 1925 and Hitler’s order to tear it down in 1940. Not everyone loved it though. One of the main opponents to its construction, Guy de Maupassant, reputedly ate lunch in the restaurant there every day, because it was the only place in Paris from which the tower was not visible.