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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of Paris’s Iconic Eiffel Tower

What is the Eiffel Tower?

The Eiffel Tower is a 324-metre iconic wrought-iron tower on the Champ de Mars in Paris that was built for the 1889 World’s Fair offering a panoramic view of the city. It is named after Gustave Eiffel, the owner of the company that built the tower.

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Eiffel Tower History

‘Imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack’, ventured the Artists Against the Eiffel Tower in February 1887. The petitioners feared that ‘under its barbaric bulk’ Paris’s signature structures would be diminished: ‘Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe…all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for twenty years... we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal’. Completed in March 1889 after two years, two months, and five days, the tower served as the main entrance to the Exposition Universelle, a world fair celebrating the centenary of the French Revolution. It has stood, however, for over 130 years, and counting.

At 324 metres high, meanwhile, it also remains the tallest structure in the city, visible from across the capital and lit up by sparkling lights for five minutes on the hour after dark. Nicknamed the Iron Lady, it has become an icon of the city and a symbol of the nation. Was the assembly of militant artists right to be so fearful of Gustave Eiffel’s monumental 10,000-ton tower?

Today, the wrought iron lattice erupts from the sea of Baron Haussmann’s elegant, unified buildings (no higher than five storeys) and pierces up above the Paris skyline. Tourists (over seven million every year) come for several reasons, drawn variously to the stunning views from the tower’s summit or the mesmerising sight of its 20,000 lightbulbs. Or perhaps they disagree with those quarrelling artists and consider it a phenomenal feat of engineering and a beautiful work of public art.

Although he was creating the tallest man-made structure in the world (until the Chrysler Building in New York decades later), Gustave Eiffel was determined to construct more than a trifling toy. First, he had to prove wrong those who doubted the possibility of a 300-metre-high construction. A businessman and engineer with several bridges and railways to his name, Eiffel knew his greatest challenge would be the wind. He relied on the engineers Maurice Koechlin and Émile Nouguier and the architect Stephen Sauvestre to design tapering trusswork of 18,000 metal pieces so that the wind would not push directly against the structure, and the wind’s force would be uniformly distributed. For Eiffel, this was soaring exponential harmony and with it there was beauty: not only in artistry, but also in scientific calculation.

The only embellishments are located beneath the first balcony. The names, inscribed in capital letters 60 centimetres high, commemorate 72 French post-Revolution scientists, engineers, and mathematicians whose work contributed to the tower’s completion. Sophie Germain, whose pioneering work on elasticity theory proved invaluable to Eiffel, is conspicuously absent. Obtaining a permit only for 20 years, Eiffel was desperate to prove his construction’s utility. ‘Besides its soul-inspiring aspects’, he argued, ‘the tower will have varied applications for our defence, as well as in the domain of science’. In 1909, it was saved by its role in radiotelegraphy. A year later, radiant energy was measured at its bottom and top. Two years after that, the Austrian tailor Franz Reichelt ascended to the first floor to demonstrate his wearable parachute, but in the February winds it failed to inflate and he plummeted to his death. Not all designs are made equal.

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