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An unwanted Parisian landmark – the Eiffel Tower

Posted in Engineering, Famous landmarks, Historical articles on Monday, 28 November 2011

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This edited article about the Eiffel Tower originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 863 published on  29 July 1978.

The Eiffel Tower, picture, image, illustration

The Eiffel Tower by Harry Green

The letter that appeared in a leading French newspaper on 14th February, 1887, caused a sensation in Paris. Signed by distinguished authors, architects and musicians, it called upon all lovers of beauty to protest against the erection of the tower. The building would be useless and monstrous, they wrote, and its silhouette would be an eyesore upon the city’s skyline.

The tower in question was the brainchild of a brilliant engineer named Gustave Eiffel, and it was designed to be the centrepiece of the Paris International Exhibition in 1889.

It would be hard to think of a more suitable place than Paris for an exhibition of this kind at the end of the 19th century. London might be the centre of the British Empire, and New York the fastest growing and most dynamic city on Earth, but as a centre of culture, ideas and sheer enjoyment of life, neither could compare with the capital of France. Artists and writers from all over the world felt that their education was not complete until they had spent some time in the city on the Seine.

Today, we should probably say that Paris was a centre for smart people, which is hardly fair to the brilliant doctors, engineers and scientists who were also making history there. But as a site for the exhibition it was superb, and as a central attraction for this what could be more sensational than the tower that Gustave Eiffel proposed? Three hundred metres high and made entirely of steel, it would be unlike anything else in the world, a staggering construction that would pinpoint the centre of Paris for miles around.

Yet many people asked themselves if such a project could be taken seriously. Nothing like it had ever been undertaken before – what would happen to nearby buildings if the tower should be blown down by the first high wind?

What confounded the project’s critics were the reputations of the people who supported it, among whom was the President of France. The latter, M. Carnot, was a mild, dull man of unquestioned integrity, of whom the worst that could be said was that he had once accidentally discharged a 12-bore shotgun into the uniformed seat of General Brugere, the chief of the presidential military staff. As for Gustave Eiffel, he was so unquestionably brilliant that he commanded nothing but respect.

In his time, Eiffel was the finest builder of bridges in France, if not the world. Born in Dijon in 1832, he had already achieved some astonishing feats of engineering by the time he came to design the famous tower.

Between 1875 and 1880, he had built a 730-metre-long viaduct in Portugal, while at Garabit in the Auvergne, in central France, he had constructed a revolutionary bridge over the deep gorges of the Truyère river, with arches that were 170 metres wide.

It was Eiffel who had designed the vast roof over the main station at Budapest and the great bridge at Saigon.

And if anyone needed proof that he could build other things beside bridges, Eiffel had constructed buildings for two previous Paris exhibitions, and even made the metal structure for the famous Statue of Liberty.

It was soon apparent that the people who wanted the new tower outnumbered those who objected to it, and so on 28th January, 1887, a crew of engineers and skilled workmen from the Eiffel workshops began digging the foundations in a corner of the Champ de Mars, close by the River Seine. These were 103 metres square and very solid, for Eiffel had estimated that his finished tower would weigh well over 7,000 tonnes.

Eiffel’s tower proved that steel had a greater tensile strength than iron, but when it was completed in 1889, it was seen less as a fine piece of imaginative engineering than as the supreme tourist attraction of the exhibition. Apart from dominating Paris and being decorated with the newly-invented electric light, Gustave Eiffel’s tower did not actually do anything, but visitors queued happily for a chance to tramp up the 750 steps that led to platforms from which one could view the city. During the exhibition 3,512,000 visitors made the trip, including such diverse and impressive personages as the Prince of Wales, Thomas Edison, Buffalo Bill and eight African kings.

The tower was by no means the end of Eiffel’s work, but the later years of his career were embittered by the great Panama Canal scandal, which burst on France in 1893. Eiffel had spent many years planning basins for the proposed waterway between the Pacific and the Atlantic, and it was no fault of his that the company collapsed due to corruption, lack of planning and disease.

Eiffel was not discouraged and turned to another subject which fascinated him. Although he was now an old man, he found himself increasingly fascinated by the possibility of man learning to fly. He built an aeronautical laboratory at Auteuil, which had one of the first wind tunnels by means of which the behaviour of air currents could be studied. He even used his famous tower for experiments.

Today, the Eiffel Tower is almost 90 years old and, despite the gloomy predictions of its early critics, still shows no signs of falling down. It now boasts a radio station, a 16-metre-high TV aerial, a lift and a restaurant, but otherwise it has changed very little.

It seems to have had an attraction for eccentric characters, such as the man who planned to drop people from its summit in a four-tonne projectile in order to give them an “emotional descent”, and the unhappy “birdman” who flapped confidently off the top observation platform, only to fall like a stone. The Eiffel Tower has also been a great favourite of confidence tricksters, the most skilful of whom succeeded in “selling” the structure twice in the course of a single afternoon.

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