The Eiffel Tower Story

The following reprinted from Uncle John's Giant 10th Anniversary Bathroom Reader.

Eiffel Tower at dusk (Image Credit: franz88 [Flickr]) It's hard to believe now, but when the Eiffel Tower was proposed in the late 1800s, a lot of Parisians - and French citizens in general - opposed it. Here's a look at the story behind one of the most recognizable architectural structures on earth.


In 1885, French officials began planning the Great Exposition of 1889, a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. They wanted to build some kind of monument that would be as glorious as France itself. The Washington Monument, a masonry and marble obelisk, had recently been completed. At 557 feet high, it was the tallest building on earth. The French decided to top it by constructing a 1,000-foot-tall tower right in the heart of Paris. Now all they had to do was find somebody who could design and build it.


On May 2, 1886, the French government announced a design contest: French engineers and architects were invited to "study the possibility of erecting on the Champ de Mars an iron tower with a base of 125 meters square and 300 meters high." Whatever the contestants decided to propose, their designs had to meet two other criteria: 1) the structure had to be self-financing- it had to attract enough ticket-buying visitors to the exposition to pay for its own construction; and 2) it had to be a temporary structure that could be torn down easily at the end of the Exposition.


More than 100 proposals were submitted by the May 18 deadline. Most were fairly conventional, but some were downright weird. One person proposed building a huge guillotine; another suggested erecting a 1,000-foot-tall sprinkler to water all of Paris during droughts; a third suggested putting a huge electric light atop the tower that - with the help of strategically placed parabolic mirrors - would provide the entire city "eight times as much light as is necessary to read a newspaper."


The truth was, none of them had a chance. By the time the contest was announced, Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel [wiki] - a 53-year-old structural engineer already considered France's "master builder in metal" had the job sewn up. (He would later become as le Magicien du Fer - "the Iron Magician.") Weeks earlier, he had met with French minister Edouard Lockroy and presented plans for a wrought iron tower he was ready to build. Eiffel had already commissioned 5,329 mechanical drawings representing the 18,038 different components that would be used. Lockroy was so impressed that he rigged the contest so only Eiffel's design would win. Eiffel's plan for the tower (Image Credit: L'histoire de la tour Eiffel et sa construction, vues par son architecte, un album publié en 1900)


In January 1887, Eiffel signed a contract with the French government and the City of Paris. Eiffel & Company, his engineering firm, agreed to contribute 1.3 million of the tower's estimated $1.6 million construction cost. In exchange, Eiffel would receive all revenues generated by the tower during the exposition…and for 20 years afterward. (The government agreed to leave the tower up after the Exposition.) Afterward, full ownership reverted to the City of Paris. They could tear it down if they wanted.


Unlike other public monuments, the Eiffel Tower was designed to make money from the very beginning. If you wanted to take the elevator or the stairs to the first story, you had to pay 2 francs; going all the way to the top cost 5 francs (Sundays were cheaper). That was just the beginning; restaurants, cafes, and shops were planned for the first story; a post office, telegraph office, bakery, and printing press were planned for the second story. In all, the tower was designed to accommodate up to 10,416 paying customers at a time.


Construction began on January 26, with not a moment to spare. With barely two years left to build the tower in time for opening of the Exposition, Eiffel would have to build the tower more quickly than any similar structure had been built before. The Washington Monument, just over half the Eiffel Tower's size, had taken 36 years to complete.


A 1,000-foot tower would dwarf the Parisian skyline and overpower the city's other landmarks, including Notre Dame, the Louvre, and Arc de Triomphe. When digging started on the foundation, more than 300 prominent Parisians signed a petition protesting the tower. They claimed that Eiffel's "hallow candlestick" would "disfigure and dishonor" the city. But Eiffel and the city ignored the petition, and work continued uninterrupted.

Photos of Eiffel Tower construction (Image Credit: L'histoire de la tour Eiffel et sa construction, vues par son architecte, un album publié en 1900)


The tower still had its critics. A French mathematics professor predicted that when the structure passed the 748-foot mark, it would inevitable collapse; another "expert" predicted that the tower's lightening rods would kill all the fish in the Seine. The Paris edition of the New York Herald claimed the tower was changing the weather; and the daily newspaper Le Matin ran a headline story claiming "The Tower is Sinking." If it has really begun to sink," Le Matin pontificated, "any further building should stop and sections already built should be demolished as quickly as possible." As the tower's progress continued unabated, however, a sense of awe began to replace the fear.


Most advances in architecture and engineering are incremental. If, for instance, you wanted to build the world's first 10-story building, you'd expect to study the construction techniques of 8-and 9-story buildings first. But Gustave Eiffel didn't have that luxury. No one had ever built an iron tower like his of any size…let alone one that was twice as tall as the tallest building on earth.


To accomplish his task, Eiffel devised some incredibly ingenious techniques:

• Unlike other massive engineering projects of the day, he had nearly all of the parts used in the tower prefabricated off-site in his workshops. This meant that when they arrived at the tower, the parts could quickly be riveted into place with a minimum of fuss.

• The rivet holes themselves were predrilled to a tolerance of one-tenth of one millimeter, making it possible for the twenty riveting teams to drive an average of 1,650 rivets a day.

• None of the girders used in the tower was permitted to weigh more than three tons. This made it possible to use smaller cranes to lift everything into place. As Joseph Harris writes in The Tallest Tower:

Eiffel had learned that using small components was faster and safer, even if his method did require more riveting, for cranes could be smaller and more mobile. The chances of accidents were reduced, and if one did occur the consequences were less serious. Use of bigger girders would have slowed the entire operation and required more expensive and complicated construction methods. Thanks to these and other safety measures, the Eiffel Tower - the world's tallest construction site - was also one of the safest. Of the hundreds of people who worked on the tower, only one, a riveter's assistant named Dussardin, fell to his death.


In the early days of the project, there were actually four construction sites at the Eiffel Tower, one for each foot, or "pier." These piers did not join together until the 180-foot level…and once this point was reached, they had to be set perfectly level with one another to create a perfectly horizontal platform on which the remaining 800 feet of the tower could be built. If the piers were even slightly out of alignment, the tiniest discrepancy at the base of the tower would be magnified at the top: it would appear to lean. Eiffel knew there was no way he could guarantee the piers would be vertical when finished - the margin for error was too great. So he installed temporary hydraulic pistons in the base of each of the feet. That way, as work on the tower progressed, he could "fine-tune" the entire tower into perfect alignment by slightly raising or lowering each foot. When the tower was properly aligned, workers could drive iron wedges into the piers to secure them permanently. As it turned out, Eiffel had little to worry about. Even at the 180-foot level, the worst of the four massive piers was less than 2 ½ inches out of alignment. All four were easily adjusted and secured in place. Even today, the tower is perfectly vertical.


The Eiffel Tower was a marvel- not just for its ingenuity of design, but also because it was completed ahead of schedule and under budget. The Exposition was scheduled to open on May 6; work on the tower was finished on March 31. Eiffel & Company earned back it money in record time. During the six months of Exposition alone, the tower earned back more than $1.4 million of its $1.6 million construction cost; that combined with the $300,000 subsidy provided by the French government, pushed the tower into the black even before the Exposition closed. The tower was such a magnificent structure that it won over many earlier critics. Among them was French prime minister Tirard. He had opposed the project at its inception, but awarded Eiffel the medal of the Legion of Honor after it was finished. The tower, a symbol of France's unrivaled technical expertise, became the symbol of France itself. Not everyone who hated the tower experienced a change of heart. Guy de Maupassant, the novelist best known for The Necklace, was said to eat regularly at a restaurant on the tower's second floor. His reason: It was the only place in Paris where he was sure he wouldn't see the tower. (Even some of the characters in his novels hated the tower.)


• Every seven years, the Eiffel Tower receives a fresh coat of more than 300 tons of reddish-green paint. Why reddish-green? Because, tower officials say, it is the color that clashed least with the blue sky over Paris, and the green landscape of the Champ de Mars below.

• The positions of the Eiffel Tower's four "feet" correspond to the "cardinal" points of a compass: they point exactly north, south, west, and east.

• In 1925 the City of Paris wanted to decorate the tower with electric lights as part of an arts exposition being held nearby, but the cost, estimated at $500,000, was too high. When automaker André Citroën learned of the project, he offered to pay for it himself…in exchange for the right to put his company name and corporate symbol in lights as well. The City agreed. "The Eiffel Tower," Blake Ehrlich write in Paris on the Seine, "became the world's largest electric sign, its outlines traced in lights." The lights were so popular that the tower remained lit with various designs until 1937.

Franz Reichelt's fatal jump: Link [YouTube]

• Sad fact: The Eiffel Tower is the most popular landmark for suicides in France. In an average year, four people commit suicide by jumping off the tower or, occasionally, by hanging themselves from its wrought iron beams. The first person killed in a jump from the tower, in 1911, was not an intentional suicide - the man was a tailor named Reichelt who had sewn himself a "spring-loaded bat-wing cape" that he thought would enable him to fly. It didn't.

Interesting Sidelight

Gustave Eiffel also designed and built the iron skeleton that holds up the Statute of Liberty. Room with a view: Among the amenities that Gustave Eiffel designed for the tower was a penthouse apartment at the top, complete with grand piano and spotlights for shining on other Paris monuments. He built it for his own use.

Eiffel Tower (Image Credit: altuwa [Flickr])

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Giant 10th Anniversary Bathroom Reader, which comes packed with 504 pages of great stories. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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hi guys i just went to Paris July 2010 its a very nice place.i asked some one in English with out asking if they speak english that guy did not even bothered to say anything and shook his head..i was amazed and i realized i am not in england. so its alays nice to approach some one in there language with a nice gesture and any one will be more happey to help long live France.
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Interesting article. The only part I really knew was that the tower was built for the 1889 Expo, and that Eiffel designed the Statue of Liberty.

As far as people go, I encountered many people all over Italy who lived up to the Parisiens' reputation for rudeness and intolerance, but the people I met in France were generally ok.

When I visit a foreign country, I do make it a point to learn how to say, "I don't speak [the language], do you speak English?" This backfired in Israel: several people responded to me in Hebrew anyway since I was speaking the language.
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