Peter Takes on History
March 31, 1889
La Tour Eiffel, icon of Paris
On this day in history a monument was completed, an imposing edifice built to serve as the entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair. Its famous builder, known as the “Magician of Iron,” is the same man who built the internal superstructure that supports our own Statue of Liberty. Today famed French engineer Gustav Eiffel's tower remains the most visited paid monument in the world.
In 1884, the French government decided to host a World’s Fair to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the French Revolution. The fair committee staged a contest welcoming artists and designers to propose a spectacular centerpiece. Of the 107 entries, the committee chose Eiffel and Company’s tower. It would be the tallest structure on earth rising nearly 1000 feet above Paris.
But when the design was revealed to the public, protests began. There were skeptics who questioned the engineering and others who decried the esthetic. One editorial, signed by 300 prominent Frenchmen said in part, “... we writers, painters, sculptors, architects, lovers of the beauty of Paris ... protest with all our strength and all our indignation … the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower.”
Gustav Eiffel didn’t actually conceive of or design the tower. It was all done by his staff and he saw it as a distraction from their very lucrative core business building bridges and aqueducts. But once the vocal public began dissing the design, he jumped to its defense! “Are we to believe,” he wrote, “that because one is an engineer, one is not preoccupied by beauty in one's constructions, or that one does not seek to create elegance … ?”
Then Eiffel took the world to school on ironwork! Working from 4300 engineering drawings, construction began. The 984 foot tower was a remarkably precise build, with parts assembled on site as well as in Eiffel’s facility outside Paris. A renowned expert on aerodynamics, Eiffel designed-in sophisticated wind resistance that limits the sway of the tower to 4.5” at the top even in hurricane winds. Construction, which remained precisely on budget, even under budget, was completed in an astounding 2 years, 2 months and 5 days.
The tower became an immediate hit! No one who visited the fair was going to miss the view of Paris from that great height! Despite the fact that the elevators weren’t functional for the first three weeks of the fair, 30,000 visitors climbed the 17-hundred stairs to the top! During the fair’s six-month run the tower welcomed nearly two-million visitors and is credited with pushing the fair into the black.
Because Eiffel himself paid 80% of the construction cost, he was given a 20 year lease on the property, so he’d have enough time to earn back his investment. Demolition was scheduled for 1909. But Eiffel did not want to see his tower torn down and proceeded to try and make it indispensable to the city and its residents.
Eiffel installed a laboratory in the tower and welcomed French scientists to study astronomy and meteorology. In 1909 Eiffel added a wind tunnel to study aerodynamics testing, among other things, Porsche automobiles and a Wright Brothers airplane.
Eiffel also installed an antenna on top. At the dawn of the age of radio telegraphy Paris suddenly owned the tallest antenna in the world!
At the end of the 20 year lease, the tower had become such an iconic symbol of Industrial Age Paris that the city decided to let it stand. Though the tower is loved by visitors from all over the planet, not everyone warmed to it.
The French writer Guy de Maupassant, one of the original 300 who made their opposition to the tower public, was asked why, if he hated the Eiffel Tower so much, did he have lunch in its restaurant every day? He answered, “It is the only place in Paris from which I cannot see the monstrosity!”