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The Eiffel Tower Story

The Exposition Universelle of 1889 was the tenth world’s fair and the fourth to be held in Paris, from 6 May to 31 October 1889. Since 1855, the French had been holding an international exposition in Paris every eleven years (more or less), each more gigantic and wondrous than the last.

In the early 1880s, it appeared that Paris might not again host an international exposition. The previous one had lost money. In spite of the constant stream of boasting in the French journals reporting on the 1878 fair, there was no getting around the stark fact that the 1867 exposition universelle – the culminating festival of the now-despised Second Empire – had produced a profit of almost three million francs, while eleven years later the Republic’s world’s fair lost more than thirty million francs.

There was a bright side to these comparisons, however. Less than seven million people had attended the 1867 fair. Over sixteen million had come to the 1878 exposition. Clearly, here was statistical proof that The People had responded more warmly to the Republic. So, despite the pundits’ predictions of financial catastrophe, the leaders of the government of France decided that the birth of the Republic should be celebrated and vindicated in 1889, the centennial year of the French Revolution. Therefore, intoned Monsieur le President Jules Grévy, be it decreed on this eighth day of November, 1884, that there shall be held, from May sixth until November sixth, 1889, the fourth exposition universelle. Antonin Proust, Minister of Instruction and Fine Arts, was appointed President of the Exposition. A distinguished group of experienced men were placed in charge of the financing, building, and arranging of the Exposition Tricolorée – so-named for the colours of the French flag adopted during the Revolution – Paris would once again be host to the world.

The 1889 exposition was to be an advertisement for the Republican system, which for 18 years had kept at bay the Royalists and Bonapartists on the right and the representatives of various socialist tendencies on the left. The philosophy in power was to be seen as humanist, philanthropic, opening its arms to all of humanity.

“We will show our sons what their fathers have accomplished in the space of a century through progress in knowledge, love of work and respect for liberty,” proclaimed Georges Berger, the fair’s general manager.

By the end of 1884 the exposition Committee had announced a contest for a spectacular centrepiece for the 1889 Paris World’s Fair: a 300 meter tower – a structure far surpassing in height any edifice ever built, that would give the entire fair a single signature structure, a striking symbol of French culture.

Eiffel Tower, 2014

It seems probable that Eiffel himself – or, more precisely, Eiffel and his collaborators – first urged the idea of a 300 meter tower as the most audacious spike for the Exposition Tricolorée.

Even before the official announcement of a competition for the design of a 300-meter tower, Eiffel’s company was at work on the plans. Two of Eiffel’s young engineers, Émile Nouguier and Maurice Koechlin, and his architect, Stephen Sauvestre, created an initial design of a 300 meter iron tower, one that so pleased Eiffel he made further refinements and improvements, and began promoting it as the ideal World’s Fair monument. After all, it would rise nearly twice as high as the world’s tallest building, the recently completed 179 meters tall Washington Monument in America, thoroughly eclipsing that landmark. Eiffel purchased the exclusive rights to his colleagues’ plans. Thenceforth, the tower belonged to Eiffel. There was no question of the plan being carried forth by his subordinates, even though the idea in its first stages was undeniably their own. Only Eiffel has the financial resources, the professional reputation and the political leverage to carry the project to a successful completion.

Maurice Koechlin, Émile Nouguier, Stephen Sauvestre — original designers of the Eiffel Tower
Gustave Eiffel

From the outset, Eiffel’s plan encountered serious opposition and competition. When he presented his ideas for the 300 meter tower at the Exhibition of Decorative Arts in 1884, detractors and supporters took sides, and the debate began.

The Parisian architects had been the first to strike, outraged that a mere engineer and builder of railway bridges could imagine his iron monstrosity worthy of a central place in their illustrious city. In early February of 1885, Jules Bourdais, architect of the acclaimed Trocadéro Palace, had begun promoting his plan: a one-thousand-foot-tall Sun Column, a classical granite tower of elegant loggias enclosing a hollow centre. Rising up from a proposed six-story museum of electricity, the Bourdais Column would be topped not only by a gigantic searchlight (combined with parabolic mirrors) that would illumine the city, but by a statue of Scientia, or Knowledge. When questioned, Bourdais declined to consider that his design was an engineering impossibility, far too heavy for its foundation, and unlikely to survive strong winds. Instead, he challenged Eiffel to show how elevators could go up and down inside his tower’s curved legs. Now that, Bourdais countered, was the real impossibility!

For a year the architects quietly attacked Eiffel behind the scenes, certain they could persuade the government to choose Bourdais’s Sun Column. But the fair’s commissioner Lockroy, also the minister of trade in the republican administration, was clearly enamoured of Eiffel’s tower, and Lockroy — a swashbuckling classicist and freethinker, a veteran of Garibaldi’s anti-royalist campaign in Sicily, and a man who relished drama — was not easily swayed. He was firmly committed to seeing built a “monument unique in the world… one of the most interesting curiosities of the capital”. And so, on May 1, 1886, Paul Planat, founder and editor of the architectural journal La construction moderne, went noisily public, launching the first of many jeremiads against Eiffel’s tower, denouncing it as “an inartistic… scaffolding of crossbars and angled iron” and excoriating above all its “hideously unfinished” look.

In truth, no project had yet been officially selected, and the very next day Lockroy formally invited all who wished to compete for the great honour of constructing the World’s Fair tower to submit proposals by May 18, 1886. Though Lockroy suggested that the design be for an iron tower of 300 meters, many among the 107 entrants ignored that guideline. One entrant envisioned a gigantic water sprinkler, in case drought struck Paris. Another featured a tall tower built not of iron but of wood and brick. Perhaps the most historically minded design was the gigantic guillotine, so evocative of the very event being unofficially celebrated, the fall of the Bastille. Was it possible, Planat wondered in print, even as the winner was to be announced, that Monsieur Lockroy, reputedly “a man of taste,” might still acknowledge the error of his ways and realize that “there could be no honour in erecting [Eiffel’s] monstrosity… [or] leaving as his legacy this scaffolding”?

By now, others had joined the campaign against Eiffel, asserting that the actual construction of a safe 300 meter tower was technically impossible, as no building that tall could resist the power of the wind. Moreover, how would Eiffel find men willing or even able to work at such vertiginous heights? And what of the danger to those who would come as visitors to ascend such a structure? Of course, Eiffel knew that these naysayers probably understood nothing of his vast experience, the more than fifty wrought-iron railroad bridges he had built in France alone. Erecting those structures had made him thoroughly confident that his mathematical formula for shaping wrought iron would hold up to the worst possible winds. As for the labour question, his workers who had built the bridge at Garabit were already habituated to working 122 meters above the ground. And once the tower was up, he had no doubt it would be perfectly safe. He did not bother to dignify with a reply the strange assertion that such a huge iron tower would become a dangerous magnet, drawing the nails from surrounding Parisian buildings.

Then came an entirely new line of attack, slithering out of that most poisonous undercurrent of French life: anti-Semitism. In June a hateful screed titled The Jewish Question charged that Eiffel, through his German ancestors, was “nothing more nor less than a German Jew.” An entire chapter scourged L’Exposition des Juifs and denounced the proposed Eiffel Tower as “une tour juive”. It was a sad commentary that Eiffel even felt obliged to respond, as he did in the republican paper Le Temps, stating, “I am neither Jewish nor German. I was born in France in Dijon of French Catholic parents.”

On June 12, 1886, Gustave Eiffel was delighted to learn he had won the coveted commission to build the fair’s centrepiece. Despite the campaigns of Eiffel’s opponents, Commissioner Lockroy (to no one’s surprise) had selected Eiffel’s Tour en Fer de Trois Cents Mètres, having deemed the other projects either unworkable or — in the case of the gigantic replica of a guillotine — simply impolitic. Eiffel’s tower was praised as having “a distinctive character… [being] an original masterpiece of work in metal”. Ultimately, Eiffel would be building a potent symbol of French modern industrial might, a towering edifice that would exalt science and technology, assert France’s superiority over its rivals (especially America), and entice millions to visit Paris for the fair to ascend the tower’s unprecedented heights. After all, American and British engineers had likewise dreamed of building a wonderfully tall tower, but they had not been able to figure out the means to do so. Eiffel, the Frenchman, through his years of erecting gigantic and beautiful arched railroad bridges, had solved the mystery, and being thoroughly Gallic, he intended to build with elegance and artistry.

After experiencing the joy of winning the commission, Eiffel entered another painful phase when he estimated the cost of erecting the tower at five million francs, or $1 million. The government, which had originally talked about underwriting that whole sum, now backpedalled, offering not quite a third, or 1.5 million francs, leaving Eiffel to raise personally the remaining millions needed to build the tower. To attract investors, he would be allowed to keep the tower up for twenty years and was assured of all profits from entry fees and restaurant concessions for the whole of that period. But after this agreement was reached, weeks and then months passed with no action and no contract. Eiffel began to worry about ever getting started with the project, much less finished.

Next, further debates arose about where best to locate the Eiffel Tower. In the end, Eiffel once again prevailed. His tower would stand on the Champ de Mars, with the rest of the fair.

After dark, the tower was lit by hundreds of gas lamps, and a beacon sent out three beams of red, white and blue light. Two searchlights mounted on a circular rail were used to illuminate various buildings of the exposition. 1889.

However, when the military discovered that their training ground on the Champ de Mars would be forfeited to the Eiffel Tower not just for the duration of the fair but for twenty years, it successfully agitated to relocate the tower much closer to the river. In September Eiffel was working in his office when he learned that he now was to build his tower so close to the Seine that two of the foundations for the legs would require far more complicated compressed-air construction techniques. “These foundations,” he would later complain to Lockroy, “are far more onerous for me than those previously agreed to on the Champ de Mars.”

As the New Year neared, he decided to gamble his personal fortune for the glory of seeing his 300 meter tower rise over Paris. He agreed to indemnify the state for any possible consequence of the tower’s collapsing, hiring top lawyers to ensure the best possible solution and he would raise all the financing beyond the state’s 1.5 million francs as previously discussed. This bold stroke ended the logjam, and on January 7, 1887, he and the French and Parisian governments finally signed off on the long-stalled contract. The contract required Eiffel to use only French labour, materials, and technology and to submit to oversight by an exposition committee. Three weeks later, on January 28, during a winter so severe that Parisians were ice-skating on lakes in the Bois de Boulogne, Eiffel broke ground at the Champ de Mars. At last, the foundations for the tower were begun.

Foundations of the Eiffel Tower

As Eiffel would confess later in a lecture, he felt tremendous “satisfaction” that morning as “I watched an army of diggers start on those great excavations that were to hold the four feet of this Tower that had been a subject of constant concern for me for more than two years. I also felt that, notwithstanding the severe attacks directed against the Tower, public opinion was on my side, and that a host of unknown friends were preparing to welcome this daring attempt as it rose out of the ground.”

One of the stone and cement foundations for the tower’s legs. April, 1887

The Eiffel Tower was situated to serve as a triumphant towering archway into the fairgrounds from the Pont d’Iéna, and each of its four gigantic feet marked one of the cardinal points of the compass. The east and south feet would stand firmly on deeply excavated grey plastic clay soil undergirded by a solid foundation of chalk. The north and west feet, being closer to the river, presented a more complex situation, requiring compressed-air excavation via sunken caissons. Every morning, through the snows and freezing weather of that harsh winter, great teams of labourers turned out to excavate the four gigantic foundations, with the blue-suited workmen tossing the dirt and rocky debris into large-wheeled wooden wagons to be carted away by horses.

Equipping the tower with adequate and safe passenger lifts was a major concern of the government commission overseeing the Exposition

As Eiffel and his work crews got busy, and the tower began to look like a reality, the influential L’Illustration continued to mock it as little better than “a lighthouse, a nail, a chandelier… it would never have been allowed but for politicians who have the idea it’s a ‘symbol of industrial civilization.’” Horrified at the scale of what they saw taking place, the tower’s enemies mobilized for a last-ditch effort to stop the hated “scaffolding.”

On February 14, not three weeks into the digging of the foundations, forty-seven of France’s most famous and powerful artists and intellectuals signed their names to an angry protest letter addressed to Paris official Adolphe Alphand, Baron Haussmann’s right-hand man and principal organizer of this and the past two World Fairs. The letter, published in Le Temps, vehemently lamented the soulless vulgarity of such an industrial behemoth, this “dizzily ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a black and gigantic factory chimney, crushing [all] beneath its barbarous mass.”

Among the signatories were France’s most hallowed names — the greatest painters of the age, Ernest Meissonier and Adolphe William Bouguereau; the celebrated writers Guy de Maupassant and Alexandre Dumas fils; poet François Coppée; composer Charles Gounod; architect Charles Garnier; and dozens of other important Parisians — with all insisting fervently: “For the Eiffel Tower, which even commercial America would not have, is without a doubt the dishonour of Paris. Everyone feels it, everyone says it, everyone is profoundly saddened by it, and we are only a weak echo of public opinion so legitimately alarmed. When foreigners visit our Exposition they will cry out in astonishment, ‘Is it this horror that the French have created to give us an idea of their vaunted taste?… And for the next twenty years we will see cast over the entire city, still trembling with the genius of so many centuries, cast like a spot of ink, the odious shadow of the odious column of bolted metal.”

Lockroy and Eiffel had suffered through so many anti-tower attacks that this latest rarefied blast served only as a high-profile opportunity to take the offensive. Interviewed at his giant noisy workshop in the suburb of Levallois-Perret, Eiffel sounded positively sanguine in his creation’s defence: “I believe that the tower will have its own beauty. The first principle of architectural beauty is that the essential lines of a construction be determined by a perfect appropriateness to its use. What was the main obstacle I had to overcome in designing the tower? Its resistance to wind. And I submit that the curves of its four piers as produced by our calculations, rising from an enormous base and narrowing toward the top, will give a great impression of strength and beauty.”

Eiffel instructed those clinging to the past that there was ample patriotic glory in the “tallest edifice ever raised by man… there is an attraction and a charm inherent in the colossal… It seems to me that this Eiffel Tower is worthy of being treated with respect, if only because it will show that we are not simply an amusing people, but also the country of engineers and builders who are called upon all over the world to construct bridges, viaducts, train stations and the great monuments of modern industry.”

With his tower finally launched, and the work site busy with daily progress, Eiffel could even afford to be merely amused for the readers of Le Temps at the artistic establishment’s attack: “They begin by declaring that my tower is not French. It is big enough and clumsy enough for the English or Americans, but it is not our style, they say. We are occupied more with little artistic bibelots… Why should we not show the world what we can do in the way of great engineering projects… Paris is to have the greatest tower in the world, after all… In fact, the tower will be the chief attraction of the Exhibition.”

Completion of the first level, March 20, 1888

On March 26, 1888, Eiffel and his engineers measured the completed first platform. It was perfectly horizontal. He would later write, “Joined by a belt of girders, the piers formed a solid table with a wide base. The sight of it alone was enough to brush aside any fears of its overturning. We no longer had to worry about a major accident, and any minor ones that might occur now could not compromise completion of the structure.”

June 16th, 1888: Photo of the first level, Gustave Eiffel in the center with right hand on cane

Little bears on the first platform 🙂

Miniland at Legoland Windsor

Eiffel’s two years of planning were paying off. “Each piece [of the tower] had to be designed separately, taking into account the variable inclination of columns and braces along every foot of the tower’s height. In addition, every rivet hole had to be drawn in at precisely the right spot, so that all the on-site workers would have to do was to place one-third of 2.5 million rivets, the rest being placed at the shops in advance… all calculations had to be accurate to one-tenth of a millimetre.”

No drilling or shaping was done on site: if any part did not fit, it was sent back to the factory for alteration

As soon as Eiffel had his all-important first platform balanced, he opened a canteen there to serve food and save his men the time and trouble of clambering up and down for coffee or a meal. Now on lovely spring days at noon his men had their lunch up in the open air and breezes. Here, “a chunk of coarse bread serves as the pièce de résistance to a toothsome bit of boiled meat, or a spoonful of mutton gravy, or an artichoke, or a trifle of chicory salad.” This system also enabled Eiffel to make sure that no worker drank too much wine, thus becoming a danger to himself and others. Pay increased along with the height of the tower, ranging from eight cents an hour for unskilled labour to fourteen cents an hour for most skilled. The construction pace was relentless.

Start of construction on the second stage. May, 1888

Gustave Eiffel was pleased with the tower’s rapid progress, and by July 4, 1888, was ready to welcome and woo eighty of Paris’s most influential journalists at a summer banquet to be served on the tower’s first platform. Eiffel, in a formal frock coat suit and best silk top hat, awaited his guests at the base. Almost to a man, the writers whose words informed France on politics, science, letters and art appeared for their fête-in-the-sky wearing similar outfits. They set off up the stairs amid much chattering, exclamations over the gigantic girders creating the latticework, and high spirits at being among the first to ascend the tower. Long trestle tables had been laid out for their meal, 70 meters up in the sky. High above their heads, the press could see and hear workmen riveting together the half-finished second platform. In recent weeks, the Eiffel Tower had become the tallest structure in Paris, rising above the towers of Notre Dame, at 66 meters, the Pantheon, at 79 meters, and the dome of Les Invalides, heretofore the city’s highest monument at 105 meters.

The tower in July 1888

From the first platform, the journalists gazed upon a city very different from the Paris where the Bastille had been stormed ninety-nine years earlier. From 1853 to 1870, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte III and Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann had dramatically remade the French capital, creating a modern monumental urban centre arranged around new thoroughfares, squares, boulevards, theatres, and railroad stations. Haussmann’s bold vision included clearing space around public monuments, establishing elegant small public gardens, and opening up and landscaping the large parks, with all the greenery and colour serving to freshen and redefine the city. As part of its makeover, Paris had been subdivided into twenty arrondissements, each with its own town hall, schools, improved sanitation, and central food market. The boulevards were widened and planted with trees, equipped with wide asphalt pedestrian sidewalks, and lined with monumental buildings. The new life generated by the Haussmannian city could be seen everywhere, all along the open streets and boulevards. The city’s population had by now doubled, to more than two million. The journalists there that day savoured being among the very first to see Paris from such a height.

By mid-July, Eiffel’s men had completed the second platform, at a height of 118 meters. On July 14, Bastille Day, to celebrate his steady progress, Eiffel set off a fantastic fireworks display from the new apex. All around and above the tower, the night sky burst into exploding lights of many brilliant hues and shapes, all cascading down from the heavens.

The Vicomte de Vogüé, a regular observer in his daily constitutional along the Seine, marvelled at it all: “After the second platform, the slender column rose rapidly into space. Yet, you could not really see the construction work. The autumn fogs often hid the aerial work-place; though in the twilight of late-winter afternoons, you could see the red fires of the forges up in the sky and hear the hammers hitting the iron fittings. This was what was so striking — you almost never saw the workers on the tower; the tower appeared to grow all by itself, as if by the spell of a genie. The great works of ancient times, like the pyramids for example, are linked in our minds with the idea of great multitudes, weighing down on the levers and struggling with huge ropes; this modern pyramid was being raised up by the power of calculations requiring a very few number of hands, for today the necessary force for construction rests in a thought.”

As the tower achieved its final shape, its early critics were grudgingly coming around and conceding its comeliness. “As soon as it was possible to judge the monument as a whole, hostile opinion began to relent,” wrote the Vicomte de Vogüé, whose constitutionals along the Seine had literally led him to new heights: he had received special permission from Eiffel to wander about the tower’s upper reaches while it was still being built. “There was in this iron mountain the elements of a new beauty, elements difficult to define, because no grammar of art had as yet supplied the formula, but evident to the most biased art critics. People admired its combination of lightness with power, the daring centring of the great arches, and the erect curves of the principal rafters, which… leap towards the clouds in a single bound. What [people] admired above all was the visible logic of this structure… logic translated into something visible… an abstract and algebraic beauty… Lastly, the spectators were won over by what inevitably conquers everyone: a tenacious will, embodied in the success of a difficult undertaking. Only the top was still criticized, was adjudged unfinished, a weak and complicated crown that did not hold with the very simple lines. Something was missing at the top.”

Construction of the upper stage. December, 1888

Others particularly liked the top of the tower, whose summit ended in a rounded campanile. When visitors alighted at the very top from the elevator, they would step into a covered gallery. Fitted all round with glazed sashes that could be opened or shut as required, this penultimate gallery would be sixteen meters long on each side, and accommodate eight hundred visitors. Above this public gallery, Eiffel planned a series of rooms reserved for scientific purposes, and what would be the envy of many in coming months: an elegant personal apartment.

While the aesthetes had been finding fault with the tower, the makers of bibelots were cashing in. Happily exploiting the world’s fascination with this unique structure, they manufactured endless likenesses of it. There were images executed in “pen, pencil, and brush, in photo and lithography, in oil and pastel, on paper, canvas, on wood and ivory, on china, steel, and zinc,” not to mention Eiffel Towers replicated “on handkerchiefs and caps; it was eaten in chocolate and marchpane; formed into cigar cases and hand bells, inkstands and candlesticks; it dangled from the gentlemen’s watch chains and was fastened in the ladies ears; it stood in hundreds of forms in the shop-windows, and made all idle hands busy in the workshops.”

Disney Store on Avenue des Champs-Élysées, 2014

The Eiffel Tower mania knew no bounds. Everything was à la tour Eiffel, from toilet tables and clocks to snuff-boxes, umbrella handles, scarf pins, and sleeve buttons. They were made to suit all prices and all tastes; they were sold on the street corners under magnifying glass for two sous, and they were built in the provinces fifteen meters high, and containing little private dining-rooms just as it stood at the foot of Iéna bridge, and everywhere on the globe the portrait of the giant was to be seen.

Little bears took their Lego Eiffel Tower to visit the big Eiffel Tower 🙂

Eiffel Tower, 2014
Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, left, explores the completed tower with a friend.

Gustave Eiffel was understandably rhapsodic over the nearing completion of the tower and its embrace by the masses. He basked in the rising chorus of admiration and excitement, the contrition of many of his early detractors, and the hosannas of praise. The Revue Illustrée, which had featured him on its cover, had lauded this giant of engineering for combining “the practicality and methodical sang-froid of the English engineer, the audacity of the American engineer, and the theoretical science and taste of the French engineer.” Even The Times of London offered a mea culpa: “The form suggested the ugliest parts of a suspension bridge, and it was predicted that the deformity would be increased with the increase of size. The result has not been what was predicted. Even some of those who protested most loudly against the proposal now admit that the effect of the structure is not what they anticipated. They acknowledge that it has a light and graceful appearance, in spite of its gigantic size, and that it is an imposing monument, not unworthy of Paris.”

On Sunday, March 31, 1889, the tower’s overall structure was completed. The pinnacle achieved a final height of 300 meters. With the addition of the flagpole, the tower reached 1,000 feet. After five difficult years, starting from the moment Eiffel first admired the initial idea for a Tour en fer de trois cents mètres, it had been a relentless push to get construction under way and completed on time. Gustave Eiffel and his men had, as promised, finished in twenty-two months, in time for the fair.

The day after the tower was finished, on the brisk, windy afternoon of Monday, April 1, 1889, Gustave Eiffel triumphantly welcomed to the Champ de Mars select members of the Paris press, along with his champion, fair commissioner Édouard Lockroy; French prime minister Pierre Tirard, a civil engineer by training and an early critic; the Paris Municipal Council; various high officials; and curious wives and children. The occasion was the formal first ascension of the tower, followed by a champagne fête for Eiffel’s men. At 1:30 p.m., 150 guests and all of Eiffel’s 199 workers had gathered at the north pillar stairs, while not far off, fair construction workers toiled away, racing to complete the vast, elaborate exposition buildings, gardens, and fountains.

Eiffel once again would lead the walk up the tower’s iron staircase, for even the simplest of the tower’s elevators, the Roux railway-like cars to the first floor, were not yet ready. It was still not at all clear if any of the elevators would be ready in time for the opening of the exposition.

As Eiffel waited to lead his guests, a politician who suffered from acute vertigo used a scarf to blindfold himself, and then clutched his colleague’s arm as they started upward. The group was lively and excited. The sun came in and out of the clouds racing across the sky, and at times the March wind gusted violently, whirling dust from below. Eiffel stopped not infrequently to explain this or that feature and to let the sightseers look down at the fair or up the Seine. When the party of one hundred arrived at the first platform, Eiffel indicated where the four eateries would be—an Anglo-American bar, a Flemish brasserie, and then a Russian and a French restaurant, each with five or six hundred seats. Most of the ladies in their spring silk dresses and the top-hatted gentlemen chose to go no farther.

Panorama of the Champ-de-Mars
This view from the first level of the Eiffel Tower shows the Dôme Central and Palais des Industries Diverses, center; the Galerie Rapp, left; and Galerie Desaix, right. Behind the Palais des Industries Diverses is the Palais des Machines (also referred to as the Galerie des Machines). In front of the Dôme Central is the Fontaine Monumentale.

But forty of the more intrepid followed Eiffel up the circular staircase to the second platform, more than a third of the way to the top. From this vantage point, these lifelong Parisians were delighted by the new panorama of their beloved city. The Seine had become a silver ribbon undulating through a miniature landscape. Most of them had never seen Paris from such a height. It was an exhilarating but somehow chastening sight. After their exertions and, for many, incipient vertigo, half of the group declined to ascend any higher.

Only Gustave Eiffel and two dozen others, including his son-in-law, Salles, Lockroy, Gaston Tissandier, the aerialist editor of La Nature, a few officials, and all the journalists, persevered for the final half-hour climb to the top observation deck. From this lofty new perch, Le Figaro’s reporter discovered that the human landscape and enterprise were reduced to disquieting inconsequence: “Mounts Valérien, Montmartre, Sannois, all look like little grey blobs; the forest of Saint-Germain fades into the blue mists, the Seine becomes a tranquil rivulet, traversed by Lilliputian barges, and Paris appears like a tiny stage set with its straight roads, squares rooftops, and orderly facades. The tiny black dots are the crowds. Everything everywhere looks devoid of life, except for the green of the Bois; there is no visible movement in this immensity; no noise to show the life of the people who are ‘below.’ One would say that a sudden slumber has, in broad daylight, rendered the city inert and silent.”

Gustave Eiffel now also announced the installation of a plaque on the tower with the names of 199 of his workmen to honour their hard and faithful labour. While there had been the strikes, he as well as anyone appreciated the sheer physical effort, the terrible cold, the relentless pace, and the necessary precision and care involved in assembling this 7,300-ton structure. The tower had, regrettably, taken two lives: a worker who died in a fall while not on shift, and another hurt in an accident who then died of gangrene.

Because of Eiffel’s safety precautions, including the use of movable stagings, guard-rails and screens, only one person died during construction

The elevators for the tower turned out to be a very complex and intricate problem for the time. As no one had ever erected a tower of 300 meters, no one had any experience with building elevators to reach such heights. If the crowds could not ascend safely and swiftly up the Eiffel Tower, what sort of attraction would it be?

The fair commission supervising the tower’s construction together with Eiffel had early on jointly retained an engineer named Backmann to design the tower’s elevators. “The curvature of the Tower’s legs imposed a problem unique in elevator design, and it caused great annoyance to Eiffel, the Fair’s Commission, and all others concerned,” wrote technology historian Robert M. Vogel. “The problem of reaching the first platform was not serious. The legs were wide enough and their curvature so slight in this lower portion as to permit them to contain a straight run of track… Two elevators to operate only that far were contracted for with no difficulty — one to be placed in the east leg and one in the west.”

The truly perplexing issue was how to safely and swiftly transport passengers the 115 meters up from the ground to the second platform (the north leg) and also from the first platform to the second (the south leg). These two elevators would have to negotiate the tower’s most pronounced curvature, an unprecedented challenge in an era when elevators ran not on electric motors, but by hydraulic or water pressure. Then, to reach the top of the tower, passengers on the second platform would have to take yet another elevator and ascend in two stages, making a quick transfer halfway up.

Monsieur Backmann chose to address himself only to designing the elevator for the ascent from the second platform to the very top, leaving the commission to seek bids elsewhere for the four elevators leading to the first and then second floors. The commission had ruled that any elevator installed in the Eiffel Tower would have to be absolutely safe, reasonably swift, and of French manufacture. The first-floor contract, a simple enough matter, was awarded to Roux, Combaluzier et Lepape, who would install a clunky articulated chain-link device that would move the cars up and down with a notable but stolid clatter.

But when the commission solicited bids for the second-floor elevators, only the Paris branch of the American Otis Brothers and Company responded. The company prided itself on its global preeminence, as Charles Otis told shareholders not long afterward: “[We] have shipped our products to almost every civilized country of the globe. We have opened a large acquaintance and trade with Australia… Our London connection is promising well… notwithstanding the well known prejudice of the English people against American products… Our business along the Pacific Slope has also been satisfactory. We have during the past year shipped elevators to China and South America.”

But Otis, however global its reach, was not a French firm, and so the commission briskly rejected its interest as an impertinence, and issued another call for bids. Again no French firms came forward. By then, the summer of 1887, Eiffel was six months into his labours, and some firm would soon have to begin elevator work on what was the most difficult section of the tower. The commission reluctantly waived its own rules for French suppliers only and in July awarded the $22,500 contract to Otis.

W. Frank Hall, the Otis representative in Paris, gloried in the challenge: “Yes, this is the first elevator of its kind. Our people for thirty-eight years have been doing this work, and have constructed thousands of elevators vertically, and many on an incline, but never one to strike a radius of 49 meters for a distance of over 15 meters. It has required a great amount of preparatory study.” It soon emerged that the Otis Company had been studying the matter ever since Eiffel won Lockroy’s contest. “Quite so,” said Hall, “we knew that, although the French authorities were very reluctant to give away this piece of work, they would be bound to come to us, and so we were preparing for them.” After all, Otis Brothers had just installed the elevator in what had been the world’s tallest structure up until then, the Washington Monument. Little did the ebullient Hall of Otis or Eiffel dream of the dire troubles and conflicts ahead.

The Otis Company proposed a design of double-decked elevators that, because of the unusual incline, would operate on regular rail sections. The motive power was to be the usual hydraulic cylinder sunk in the ground and moved by water pressure. Steam engines would pump Seine river water up to a large reservoir on the second platform. When that reservoir’s water began to flow back to the ground, it would power the cylinders, activating a block and tackle that would enable the counterweighted elevators to go up and down, as controlled by the elevator operator. When Hall had first presented the Otis plans, Eiffel and the commission felt uncomfortable with the fact that the elevators would be pulled by cables from the top, rather than pushed from the bottom, as was the European system. The method simply seemed less safe, when safety was paramount.

The fair commissioners and all Paris still remembered with a shudder the Baroness de Schack’s dreadful death a decade earlier, when the ascending elevator in the Grand Hôtel malfunctioned, plummeting like a stone from the top floor to the basement. Eiffel accordingly demanded “a device that permitted the car to be lowered by hand, even after failure of all the hoisting cables,” and when Hall balked at this feature, Eiffel then insisted that the Otis Company’s chief engineer, Thomas E. Brown, Jr., come over from the United States to confer with him.

Safety, speed, and quality were characteristics on which Otis Brothers and Company of New York prided itself, but above all, safety. If an Otis elevator’s hoisting cables broke or stretched out, powerful leaf springs were released, causing the brake shoes to grip the rails, thus bringing the falling car to a gradual halt. All who followed the history of elevators could cite the famous moment in 1854 when firm founder Elisha G. Otis dramatically demonstrated “the perfect safety of his elevator by cutting the hoisting rope of a suspended platform on which he himself stood.” As the platform came to a gentle stop, Mr. Otis declared to his astonished audience, “All safe, gentlemen!” But almost four decades of established Otis safety were not sufficiently reassuring for Eiffel and the commission.

After months of protracted meetings, the Otis officials informed Eiffel that if he and the commission insisted on dictating the design of the elevators, they would withdraw from the contract. The French finally backed down.

In the meantime, Eiffel had decided once again to modify slightly the tower’s legs, which of course meant further alterations to the elevator designs. About this same time, Eiffel and the commission, examining their man Backmann’s second effort to design an elevator serving the top, realized he was no connoisseur of elevators. In mid 1888, they rejected his plans, which included the worrisome novelty of an electric motor, and fired him.

Elevator system of the Eiffel Tower, 1889

With just one year until the fair and Backmann dismissed, Eiffel had to find another provider for the elevator to the top. The problem, in this age before electric motors were the norm, was the sheer footage to be ascended: 160 meters. Eiffel turned to an old classmate, Léon Édoux, an elevator inventor and magnate who had installed a very successful 70 meter elevator in the Trocadéro Palace across the Seine. Édoux came up with “an ingenious modification… The run was divided into two equal sections, each of 80 meters, and two cars were used.” When one was going up to the interim platform where you changed for the final ride to the top, the other was coming down, and so no other weights were needed than the cars themselves. “When these two elevators were in operation, water was admitted to the two cylinders [that provided power] from a tank on the third platform. The resultant hydraulic head was sufficient to force out the rams and raise the upper car.”

At the Eiffel Tower, meanwhile, matters were not proceeding smoothly with Otis. As the months ticked by in the second half of 1888, every structural adjustment in the interior of the tower’s legs required the Otis Company to make its own elevator design accommodations. Moreover, all the extra work had forced Otis to revise the price of the two elevators upward to $30,000, a 30 percent surcharge. Even the new higher price did not reflect the true cost of the complicated elevators. The Otis Company now expected to lose $20,000 on the contract. Finally, Otis informed Eiffel that because of the constant changes the firm could no longer guarantee full operation of the two elevators by the contract deadline of January 1, 1889. However, Otis did assure Eiffel that all would be running smoothly by May 1 when the fair opened.

That wasn’t to be. Since the lifts had not been completed when the Exposition opened, the first visitors had to walk up to the second floor platform. Workers had worked through the night the day before the exhibition opened to complete the necessary construction needed to safely allow patrons to set foot upon the structure. When speaking of the dedicated workers, M. Salles, the son-in-law of Eiffel made the statement that “no soldier on the battle field deserved better mention than these humble toilers, who, will never go down in history.” No one other than construction personnel were allowed higher than the second floor platform.

It was a month later, in June, when Gustave Eiffel had the immense satisfaction of finally watching the public debark from the completed elevators. The event was front-page news in the Paris Herald, whose man reported on his own journey: “From the second floor runs a large car, holding sixty people… [The elevator] is simply a square box, with the upper part of two sides glazed… In two minutes and a half, the car arrives at a platform, which may be called floor number two and a half… Here the guard calls out ‘All change here,’ and the passengers walk across a narrow bridge into a similar elevator which takes them as high as they are allowed to go. ‘Mind the step as you go out, ladies,’ says the thoughtful guard. Everybody, of course, looks at the step, and between a rather dangerously wide crack in the boards, sees the grounds of the Exhibition gardens, two hundred and seventy-five metres below… The sensation upon going up can scarcely be described as pleasant, especially as from time to time the elevator gives strange little jerks.”

The Otis Elevator at work in the Eiffel Tower

The reporter from Pulitzer’s New York World patriotically lauded the Otis lifts and their “great triumph of American skill” before describing how “975 feet above the world people become pigmies… At this height the Arc de Triomphe has become a little toy and the churches are like those in the Dutch boxes of villages. It was all map-like and indefinite; the people were crawling ants; all that looked large had disappeared, excepting a balloon, which was our contemporary.”

Other visitors had to contend with their newly discovered fear of heights, such as an Englishman from Manchester who said: “Though the hand rail is high enough, still there are thoughts of going over which are anything but pleasant. However, perseverance is repaid when one steps out on the top platform… there is no comparison between 1,000 feet of mountain and 1,000 feet of Eiffel. The absence of any ground falling away from one’s feet, or of any surrounding mountains, gives us a sense of isolation and unnaturalness new to any but a balloonist or steeplejack. It takes a few moments before one can muster nerve to walk on the edge of the platform and look over. You must have a strong head to do that… [I]t takes some time before one can realize that the winding rivulet is the silver Seine… The only distinguishable moving objects are small clouds of white smoke traveling slowly along—the railways… Above all, an almighty silence, which is most oppressive.”

The tower’s sheer enormity and complexity, its many levels, the constantly moving elevators, the excited crowds, the delicious smells wafting from the crowded restaurants, the many little souvenir and snack stalls, the busy editing and publishing of Le Figaro, all combined to create an atmosphere of exhilaration. Eiffel was gratified to see how people wished to experience his tower, to be part of something so new, so gargantuan, so modern, which he viewed as an affirmation of technology, of progress.

Republican France had invited every nation of the world to its fête. The great European powers responded with hostility, for while the republican government might insist its fair was celebrating liberty, science, and technology, Europe’s monarchs viewed it as a celebration of the downfall and beheading of kings and queens. Lord Salisbury, speaking for Great Britain, protested the very idea of the French celebration. The Russian czar bluntly denounced the French revolution “as an abomination”. Germany dismissed universal exhibitions as “ ‘out of date. Their inconveniences are not balanced by their advantages.’ Austria used as a pretext the Parisian manifestations in favour of Hungary. Italy said: ‘The expense is greater than we could bear.’ ” Spain had declined, as had Belgium, Holland, Sweden, and Romania. Turkey, like Italy, had pleaded poverty. Only the Central and South American nations had enthusiastically RSVP’d, as had Japan. The French republicans dismissed the royal whiners, confident that the fair would showcase France’s role “as educator, benefactor, and distributor of light and bread”.

So it was very gratifying to the French when Queen Victoria’s son and heir, Arthur Edward, Prince of Wales, his wife, Alexandra, the Princess of Wales, and their five adult children came to Paris “privately” to tour the World’s Fair officially snubbed by his own government. All Paris knew that Queen Victoria had recalled her ambassador to France, Lord Lytton, just to make sure he did not attend this Gallic centennial celebration of monarchical downfall. The prince and his family were at the top of the tower barely ten minutes, just long enough to admire the view and sign Gustave Eiffel’s new Livre d’Or, a handsome, oversize green leather bound book with watered-silk end pages. The royal signatures featured impressive flourishes and occupied the entire first page. Theirs would be but the first of many illustrious autographs and messages to come, mementos of this summer when the Eiffel Tower was new. Later Eiffel would say proudly, “We gave the monarchies the spectacle of democracy happy by virtue of its own effort.”

Other signatures in the Livre d’Or are from Auguste Bartholdi, sculptor of the Statue of Liberty; Vicomte de Vogüé and his Russian wife, Sarah Bernhardt, the most famous woman in Paris and the greatest actress of her time; former queen Isabella II of Spain, whose misrule had caused her to be exiled in 1868; the Duke of Edinburgh, an admiral in the British navy; the Russian czar-to-be Nicholas II; Tewfik Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt; Prince Kitiyahara, heir apparent to the throne of Siam, and his younger brothers, Pravita Chira and Rabi; King George of Greece and his queen; Dinah Salifou, Muslim king of Senegal; and Count Münster, the German ambassador, whose government and private enterprises had been ostentatiously boycotting the fair. Nasir al-Din, the Shah of Persia, made to the first platform only by walking up. The Shah balked at riding the Eiffel Tower elevators.

Thomas Edison and Gustave Eiffel

Another signature in the Livre d’Or was that Thomas Edison who made a surprised visit to Paris for the exposition. Edison’s powerful incandescent lights played over the surface of the tower and through the waters of the fountains at the tower’s base. Visitors from every nation crowded together on the Champs de Mars and the Trocadero hill to catch a glimpse of this new form of spectacle. W.B. Franklin wrote with open admiration of these events:

It is a well-known fact that the French excel all other people in the art of ornamental illumination. Every detail connected with the illumination of the Exposition buildings, fountains, and grounds was elaborately worked out, so that it may easily be imagined what a source of interest and pleasure these nightly illuminations were to the hundreds of thousands of visitors, who waited long hours and bore every inconvenience of weather to see them. On many occasions the crowd was enormous, but it was always good-natured, and the simultaneous expressions of surprise, admiration, and delight that came from thousands of voices when the fountains were suddenly lighted up was an amusing and impressive feature of the scene.

Illumination of the tower at night during the 1889 World Fair
Eiffel Tower, 2014

By midsummer most of the writers and artists who had denounced the tower in Le Temps had expressed their mea culpas, with the notable exception of Guy de Maupassant. But even he found that he had no choice but to visit the tower if he wished to socialize. The most chic Parisians and the city’s intellectuals all flocked to the tower restaurants. “Friends no longer dine at home or accept a dinner invitation at your home,” he complained. “When invited, they accept only on condition that it is for a banquet on the Eiffel Tower — they think it gayer that way. As if obeying a general order, they invite you there every day of the week for either lunch or dinner.”

In his travel memoir, La Vie Errante, Maupassant claimed, “I left Paris and even France, because the Eiffel Tower just annoyed me too much. Not only did you see it from everywhere; you found it everywhere made out of every known material, displayed in all the shop windows, an unavoidable and horrible nightmare.” De Maupassant wondered what posterity would think of his generation “if, in some future riot, we do not unbolt this tall, skinny pyramid of iron ladders, this giant and disgraceful skeleton with a base that seems made to support a formidable monument of Cyclops and which aborts into the thin, ridiculous profile of a factory chimney.”

But de Maupassant and his sour opinions were by now very much in the minority. Most days, even during bad weather, eleven thousand or twelve thousand people swarmed about the tower. Eiffel hoped that he and his shareholders would see almost two million persons pay admission, thus recouping the entire cost of the tower by the end of the fair. The Eiffel Tower was proving to be not only a technological milestone, a potent political symbol, and a great popular and artistic success but also a financial triumph.

The Eiffel Tower’s fame and allure have only grown with the passing decades. In 1889 more than two million people came to ascend the tower. That figure would not be matched again until 1965. Today seven million visitors annually wait in long lines for the pleasure of communing with the landmark. Mega-skyscrapers long ago overshadowed the Eiffel Tower’s status as the world’s tallest structure. Yet no other man-made artefact has ever rivalled the tower’s potent mixture of spare elegance, amazing enormity and complexity when experienced firsthand. The gargantuan wrought-iron skeleton provokes awe as it lays bare the details of Eiffel’s practical engineering genius.

Cartoon of Gustave Eiffel personified as his tower by Edward Linley Sambourne, 1889

The Eiffel Tower, with its sheer aerial playfulness and charm, literally comes to life as crowds clamber up and down its stairs and elevators, and dine and eat and flirt aloft on its platforms high in the sky. And, of course, when visitors feel that frisson of unease as they gaze far below to the panorama of Paris. The Eiffel Tower still speaks uniquely to the human fascination with science and technology and to the human desire for pleasure and joie de vivre. In 1889, Jules Simon, the republican politician and philosopher, declared, “We are all citizens of the Eiffel Tower,” a sentiment as true today as it was then.

Since Eiffel contributed the majority of the tower’s construction costs, he was permitted to have the structure stand for 20 years in order to recoup his investment before it passed into the hands of the Parisian government, which planned to disassemble it for scrap metal. Seeking a way to prove the structure’s strategic utility in a bid to save it, Eiffel erected an antenna atop the tower and financed experiments with wireless telegraphy that began in 1898. The value of the tower in sending and receiving wireless messages, particularly for the French military, caused the city to renew Eiffel’s concession when it expired in 1909. Today, more than 100 antennae on the tower beam radio and television broadcasts around the world.

Story from Eiffel’s Tower by Jill Jones. Construction photos from Rare Historical Photos

…. . .-.. .-.. —

H and E are gone! It says LLO now.

Isabelle, are you eating the dots and dashes?

They are yummy!

We need the dots and the dashes to play. Today is Morse Code Day, to commemorate the birthday of Samuel Morse, inventor of Morse code.

Or as Mr. Morse might say, .- .–. .-. .. .-.. / ..— –… – …. / .. … / — — .-. … . / -.-. — -.. . / -.. .- -.– –..– / – — / -.-. — — — . — — .-. .- – . / – …. . / -… .. .-. – …. -.. .- -.– / — ..-. / … .- — ..- . .-.. / — — .-. … . –..– / .. -. …- . -. – — .-. / — ..-. / — — .-. … . / -.-. — -.. . .-.-.-

Self portrait by Samuel Morse

Samuel Finley Breese Morse (April 27, 1791 – April 2, 1872) was an American painter and inventor. After having established his reputation as a portrait painter, in his middle age Morse contributed to the invention of a single-wire telegraph system based on European telegraphs. He was a co-developer of the Morse code, and helped to develop the commercial use of telegraphy.

Telegraph Office – Alice Springs Telegraph Station

The telegraph was the result of an unusual mix of personal circumstances, artistic influences and pure happenstance. For the first four decades of his life, Morse was first and foremost an artist. However, while his name was known as an artist, he was a painter of modest renown.

In 1825, New York City had commissioned Morse to paint a portrait of Lafayette in Washington, DC. While Morse was painting, a horse messenger delivered a letter from his father that read, “Your dear wife is convalescent”. The next day he received a letter from his father detailing his wife’s sudden death. Morse immediately left Washington for his home at New Haven, leaving the portrait of Lafayette unfinished. By the time he arrived, his wife had already been buried. Heartbroken that for days he was unaware of his wife’s failing health and her death, he decided to explore a means of rapid long distance communication.

For several more years, Morse struggled in vain to succeed in the art world, but in 1832, serendipity intervened. On a transatlantic voyage, returning home from study in Europe, he met Charles Thomas Jackson, a Boston physician and scientist, who showed him a rudimentary electromagnet he had devised. Witnessing various experiments with Jackson’s electromagnet, Morse became convinced that he could somehow send a message along a wire by opening and closing an electrical circuit, which could be recorded by an electromagnet on a piece of paper via a written code.

Back in the US, Morse moved forward with his idea, that signals could be sent by the opening and closing of an electrical circuit, that the receiving apparatus would, by electromagnet, record signals as dots and dashes on paper, and that there would be a code whereby the dots and dashes would be translated into numbers and letters. He met with Joseph Henry, another scientist working in electromagnetism, and the man who would later become the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, in 1846. Henry explained how the electromagnets worked and showed Morse his experimental electromagnets.

Morse sought to improve early telegraphs, which had been linked with multiple wires, to just a single wire. Although Samuel Morse did not invent the telegraph, he vastly improved earlier versions of the instrument with his single-wire electric telegraph. Batteries supplied the electrical current, and an operator could hold down a key for a short or long period of time to control the length of the electrical impulse.

Morse realized he needed more than just the device. For his electric telegraph to work, he needed a code that could send mutually intelligible messages. Thus, the Morse Code was born with short impulses representing dots and longer impulses dashes. Messages were sent by varying the dots and dashes.

In 1837, Morse crafted a primitive telegraph receiver, now part of the Smithsonian’s collections, that was able to register and record the fluctuations in an electrical circuit. The most interesting thing about the prototype is that he took an artist’s canvas stretcher and made it into a telegraph receiver! And he submitted his patent for the “electro-magnetic telegraph”.

Morse’s 1837 telegraph receiver prototype, built with a canvas-stretcher. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives

With a means of recording electromagnetic signals theoretically in place, Morse worked with Leonard Gale, Alfred Vail and others over the next several years to improve the system and make it practical for use over far distances, incorporating Vail’s transmitter key and a code of dots and dashes, which would become known as Morse Code. Despite these improvements, the group had some difficulty convincing others that telegraphy was a worthy investment.

To raise capital for long-distance lines, Morse turned to the US government, and after a small-scale demonstration with wires strung between different committee rooms within the Capitol, he was awarded $30,000 to build a 38-mile line from Baltimore, MD to Washington, DC. On May 1, 1844, Morse’s communication device was finally met with wide scale public enthusiasm, as the Whig Party’s presidential nomination was telegraphed from Baltimore to DC far faster than a courier could have travelled.

Later that month, the line was officially opened for public use — with a message quite a bit more well-known than that of the earlier Speedwell Ironworks demonstration. This, too was recorded on a strip of paper, which now resides in the American History Museum’s collections. Short yet meaningful, the bible quotation set the stage for the approaching age of electronic communication: “What Hath God Wrought.”

Message sent by Alfred Vail and transcribed by Samuel Morse using the electromagnetic telegraph on May 24, 1844, Artefact, National Museum of American History, EM*001028.

The message he sent, “What Hath God Wrought?” travelled via his electromagnetic telegraph from Washington, DC to Baltimore, MD. But who, you might wonder, was on the other end of the line? Alfred Vail, Morse’s colleague, received Morse’s message in Baltimore and then successfully returned the same message back to Morse in the national Capitol Building’s Rotunda. For Vail, this event was the culmination of years of his own labour and financial investment, yet his influence has largely been lost in the historical record.

In 1837 Vail saw Morse demonstrate an early version of his electric telegraph at the university, and shortly after convinced Morse to take him on as a partner. The contract between the two, stated that Vail, for a share of interest in Morse’s rights to the telegraph, would work on constructing the telegraph machines and financing the American and foreign patents.

Vail vastly improved Morse’s original design of the machine. Instead of using pendulums, Vail added weights to the machine’s turning key. He also substituted a steel pointed pen for the pencil Morse had employed, to indent the code into the paper tape the machine used and improved the mechanics of the register, the instrument that punched out the code via electric impulse, as well. Additionally, Vail developed a simpler alphabetic system of code to replace Morse’s original, but more complicated numerical code, in which dashes and dots were interpreted as numbers and then translated into words in a code book. Vail’s alpha code greatly sped up the process of deciphering messages. Though his contributions to the project were extremely significant, it was Morse’s name that appeared on the patents. Consequently, Morse is remembered, and Vail is often not.

Vail himself failed to give recognition to Joseph Henry, first Secretary of the Smithsonian, who met with Morse and had invented the high intensity magnet used in Morse’s electric telegraph. So, “What Hath God Wrought?” For Alfred Vail it would seem to have been a lack of notoriety. However, in reading his letters, it seems that fame was neither his motivation nor goal. Vail’s work on the electric telegraph provided him with a life’s work and sense of accomplishment. And maybe, for him, that was enough.

In time, the Morse code would become the primary language of telegraphy in the world. It is still the standard for rhythmic transmission of data.

Private telegraph communication companies arose overnight and by 1902 telegraph wire encircled the earth, including Australia. The Overland Telegraph was completed in 1872. The telegraph vastly improved communications throughout the world. It changed how people perceived time and distance, and the telegraph was the precursor of the telephone, radio, television and internet.

Mmmm, they are yummy! 🙂

Happy Birthday Hubble

The Hubble Space Telescope has for the past 27 years powered NASA’s dream of putting people into space.

California Science Centre – Hubble Space Telescope Model 1:5
Launch date: April 24, 1990
Launch vehicle: Space Shuttle Discovery

Launched on 24 April 1990, aboard Space Shuttle Discovery, it was designed to be looked after by flesh-and-blood astronauts, and repairs and maintenance have run up a bill that would have paid for several new telescopes.

The first servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope saw astronauts install a set of specialized lenses to correct the flawed main mirror in the telescope. NASA Photograph

Hubble has been the training ground for a generation of spacefarers. Servicing it has taught NASA everything it knows about building and maintaining the International Space Station. It is also a very fine instrument indeed. For the past 27 years, Hubble has given us new perspectives on planets across the solar system and jaw-dropping views of locations across the universe. Here are some of the space telescope’s greatest hits.

A stellar nursery of about 3,000 stars called Westerlund 2 located about 20,000 light-years from the planet earth in the constellation Carina is shown in this image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope
Hubble’s near-infrared imaging camera pierces through the dusty veil enshrouding the stellar nursery, giving astronomers a clear view of the dense concentration of stars in the central cluster
This is one of Hubble’s most iconic images: the Eagle Nebula’s Pillars of Creation. It shows the pillars as seen in visible light, capturing the multi-coloured glow of gas clouds, wispy tendrils of dark cosmic dust, and the rust-coloured elephants trunks of the nebulas famous pillars. The dust and gas in the pillars is seared by the intense radiation from young stars and eroded by strong winds
Here we see one of the universe’s most stately and photogenic galaxies, the Sombrero galaxy, Messier 104 (M104). The galaxy’s hallmark is a brilliant white, bulbous core encircled by the thick dust lanes comprising the spiral structure of the galaxy. As seen from Earth, the galaxy is tilted nearly edge-on
This dramatic image offers a peek inside a cavern of roiling dust and gas where thousands of stars are forming. The image, taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) aboard Hubble, represents the sharpest view ever taken of this region, called the Orion Nebula. More than 3,000 stars of various sizes appear in this image. Some of them have never been seen in visible light

Many revolutions in astronomy have been tied to specific telescopes and their uers, from the tiny telescope with which Galileo proved that the Earth revolved around the Sun and discovered the moons of Jupiter; the Leviathan of Parsonstown, used to by the 3rd Earl of Rosse to discover the spiral structure of what are now known as galaxies, and the 2.5-meter Hooker Telescope used by Edwin Hubble during the 1920s to measure the expansion of the Universe itself. And over the last 27 years, the Hubble Space Telescopes has kept up this noble tradition.

Although the Hubble’s mirror, with a diameter of 2.4 meters, is smaller than the mirror of even the Hooker telescope, it’s location in orbit above the Earth’s distorting atmosphere and the use of state-of-the-art CCD image sensors has helped to pin down the age of the Universe, determine the existence and distribution of dark matter and dark energy, and probe the atmosphere of planets in distant star systems.

The Age of the Universe

Astronomers measure the distance of galaxies by observing cepheids, a type of variable stars in which the brightness is related to the period of their brightness variations. Because of its sensitivity, the Hubble is able to observe cepheids in very distant galaxies, millions of light years away. By calculating how long these galaxies have taken to reach the measured distances, starting from the Big Bang, they helped establish the age of the Universe, 13.7 billion years.

Dark Energy

Besides cepheids, supernovae can also serve as distance indicators, and because they are much brighter than cepheids, they can be observed over enormous distances. Images of supernovae in very distant galaxies provided by Hubble showed that their apparent brightness was too low to be at the distance of these galaxies inferred by the red shift alone. So their distance showed that the expansion of the universe is speeding up. Why this happens is still an open question. It has to be caused by a yet unknown force, called dark energy.

Dark Matter

Dark matter is not visible by itself, but its effects can be identified in images taken by the Hubble and other ground-based telescopes: the dark matter in galactic clusters deforms the apparant shape of distant galaxies behind it by bending the light coming from them into arcs. Known as gravitational lensing, this allows the location of dark matter clouds to be established.

Exoplanet Atmospheres

The discovery of numerous exoplanets, planets that circle stars other than the Sun, has given rise to the speculation that many planets with atmospheres and temperatures to Earth’s might exist and would harbor life. That one could actually analyze the composition of the atmospheres of such planets was one of the unexpected achievements of the telescope. In 2013 the Hubble succeeded in detecting small amounts of water in the infrared spectra of five planets while they were passing in front of the stars they are circling.

NASA hopes to keep Hubble operating through 2020 to overlap with its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, due to launch in October 2018.

A Teddy Bear on Mars

There it is! There it is!

For March for Science Day, little bears watched The Martian, their favourite science film 🙂 After all, there is a little teddy bear in the film and in the face of overwhelming odds, Mark Watney had to science the s**t out of surviving on Mars!

This is Neil deGrasse Tyson’s favourite line in the film. And ours 🙂

Retired astronaut Chris Hadfield gave the book a glowing review: “It has the very rare combination of a good, original story, interestingly real characters and fascinating technical accuracy…reads like MacGyver meets Mysterious Island.”

NASA was involved in the film. While NASA can’t support a private enterprise, their experts were consulted, and the film production crew worked very closely with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab officials. NASA also gave permission for the film to use the copyrighted NASA logo on its costumes. European Space Agency officials were also on the film set.


The Science of Genius

Identifying genius is a dicey adventure. Consider, for example, this ranking of “The Top 10 Geniuses” listed once on From first to last place, here are the honorees: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Leonardo da Vinci, Emanuel Swedenborg, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, John Stuart Mill, Blaise Pascal, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bobby Fischer, Galileo Galilei and Madame de Staël.

What about Albert Einstein instead of Swedenborg? Some of the living might also deserve this appellation — Stephen Hawking comes to mind. Another female genius or two might make the cut, perhaps Marie Curie or Toni Morrison. And if a chess champion, Fischer, is deemed worthy, other geniuses outside the arts and sciences ought to deserve consideration — Napoleon Bonaparte as a military genius, Nelson Mandela as a political genius or Bill Gates as an entrepreneurial genius, to name a few candidates.

All these questions and their potential answers can make for some lively beary party conversations. What they reveal is how little we understand about the origins of intellectual and creative eminence. Explorations of this age-old debate have long sought to tease out the common features of geniuses working in disparate domains. The existence of unifying threads — including genetic factors, unusually broad interests and a link with psychopathy — suggests that the mind of a genius has a discernible shape and disposition.

Ultimately the goal is to explain how an eminent thinker arrives at his or her world-changing moment, or moments, of insight. Although such breakthroughs often seem to appear in a flash, the underlying mechanisms are likely to be much more orderly. According to one theory, a genius hunts widely — almost blindly — for a solution to a problem, exploring dead ends and backtracking repeatedly before arriving at the ideal answer. This line of research is helping to investigate whether genius can be cultivated, unleashing a wealth of new ideas for the benefit of all.

The first hurdle in the study of genius is to settle on a working definition. The word itself harks back to ancient Roman mythology, according to which every male was born with a unique genius that served as a kind of guardian angel, and every female had a juno. Much later, after the Renaissance, the word became more exclusive in its application, with only a few people showing genius. Philosopher Immanuel Kant believed, for example, that a genius was someone who produced works that were both original and exemplary. The term did not acquire scientific meaning until the late 19th century, when psychologists came to define genius in two distinct ways.

The first approach was to identify genius with exceptional achievement, as Kant did. These accomplishments elicit admiration and emulation from other experts in that field and often the world at large. Unquestioned examples of such works include Newton’s Principia, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Even though this definition can be extended to encompass extraordinary leadership, such as military brilliance, and prodigious performance, including some chess grandmasters, most scientific research concentrates on outstanding creativity within the sciences or the arts, which is the focus of this article.

Sistine Chapel
Sistine Chapel ceiling

The second definition of genius coincided with the emergence of intelligence tests in the first half of the 20th century. A genius was someone who scored sufficiently high on a standard IQ test — usually landing in the top 1 percent, with a score above 140, as proposed by psychologist Lewis Terman, the formulator of one of the original intelligence tests. These two definitions have little in common. Many persons with superlative IQs do not produce original and exemplary accomplishments. One example is Marilyn vos Savant, who was once certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as having the highest recorded IQ of any living person. Her weekly Ask Marilyn column for a Sunday newspaper supplement did not inspire a new genre of science, art or even journalism. And many exceptional achievers do not attain genius-level IQs. William Shockley, for example, received a Nobel Prize in Physics for co-inventing the transistor yet had an IQ score well below 140. Exceptional achievement, then, seems the more useful measure.

In 1926, Catharine Cox estimated the IQs of 301 eminent individuals. Using biographical data on early intellectual development, she and her collaborators calculated IQ using the formula IQ=100xMA/CA, where MA=mental age and CA=chronological age. These rankings illustrate the value of using achieved eminence, rather than intelligence scores, as a measure of genius. Philosopher George Berkeley, for example, did not leave a greater mark on the world than Newton or Leonardo. Further, eight of these creative geniuses have IQs below the “genius threshold” of 140.

Too often in popular writing, genius is conceived as a discrete category — this person is a genius, but that person is not. Yet just as people can vary in IQ, they can also differ in the magnitude of their creative achievements, with either a single notable contribution or a lifetime of prolific work. One such “one-hit wonder” is Gregor Mendel, who attained lasting fame for a single paper that reported his classic experiments in genetics. Had Mendel never taken an interest in breeding peas, his name would be unknown today. Charles Darwin’s fame, in contrast, rests on far more than On the Origin of Species. Nobel laureate Max Born once said that Einstein “would be one of the greatest theoretical physicists of all time even if he had not written a single line on relativity.” Hence, Darwin and Einstein exhibited greater genius than did Mendel. Accordingly, much research is devoted to assessing relative degrees of genius — most often gauged by creative productivity.

Finding the sources of consummate creativity has occupied the minds of philosophers and scientists for centuries. In 1693 English poet John Dryden wrote, “Genius must be born, and never can be taught.” Two and a half centuries later French author Simone de Beauvoir countered, “One is not born a genius, one becomes a genius.” The first scientific investigation devoted exclusively to genius
concerned this precise issue. In 1869 Francis Galton published Hereditary Genius, in which he argued that genius is innate, based on his observations that geniuses tend to emerge from lineages that included other brilliant individuals. In response to criticisms, Galton later introduced the well-known nature-nurture issue. He conducted a survey of famous English scientists to discover some of the environmental variables involved in nurturing brilliance, and he examined factors such as birth order and education.

By the second half of the 20th century psychologists had moved to an extreme nurture position, in which creative genius rested solely on the acquisition of domain expertise. This idea was frequently expressed as the “10-year rule”. Nobody can expect to reach the heights of creativity without mastering the necessary knowledge and skill because only experts can create — or so the thinking went. Indeed, Einstein learned lots of physics before he commenced his creative career.

This explanation cannot account for all the details, however. First, geniuses often spend less time acquiring domain expertise than their less creative colleagues. Studies have linked accelerated acquisition with long, prolific and high-impact careers. The 10-year rule is an average with tremendous variation around the mean. Further, major breakthroughs often occur in areas where the genius must create the necessary expertise from scratch. Telescopic astronomy did not exist until Galileo pointed his new instrument toward the night sky to discover what had never been seen before nor even expected. The moon had mountains, Jupiter had moons and the sun had spots!

To build the two-lens telescope he used to survey the skies, Galileo had to first learn how to grind his own lenses and discover the optimal lens combination.

Second, geniuses are more likely to exhibit unusually wide interests and hobbies and to display exceptional versatility, often contributing to more than one domain of expertise. This tendency not only was true in the era of Renaissance men but also is evident today. According to a 2008 study, Nobel laureates in science are more involved in the arts than less eminent scientists. Given that geniuses might not sleep any less than the rest of us, these extraneous activities would seem to distract from a dogged focus on a narrow field of interest. Einstein slept even more hours than the norm, but he still took time off to play Bach, Mozart and Schubert on his violin. At times these avocational activities inspire major insights. Galileo was probably able to identify the lunar mountains because of his training in the visual arts, particularly in the use of chiaroscuro to depict light and shadow.

The expertise acquisition theory also undervalues the genetic components that underlie a large number of cognitive abilities and personality traits that correlate with genius. In a 2008 meta-analysis, the finding was that at least 20 percent of the variation in creativity could be attributed to nature. For example, creative achievement is strongly associated with the personality trait of openness to experience, a highly heritable characteristic. The broad interests in art and music of many geniuses are clear manifestations of this trait. Many other predictors of achievement also have high heritabilities, such as cognitive and behavioural flexibility, along with a tolerance of ambiguity and change.

Nurture may still account for the lion’s share of genius, and mastering a domain remains central. At the same time, genetics contributes heavily to the rate at which someone acquires the necessary skills and knowledge. Those with more innate talent can improve faster, launch their careers earlier and be more productive. In addition, genetics may help explain the different trajectories of equally well-trained individuals. Einstein did not know as much physics as many of his contemporary theoretical physicists, but what he did know went a long way. He could honestly say, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Researchers have long been tantalized by the question of whether the biological endowment of a genius also confers great setbacks. Greek philosopher Aristotle is reputed to have said, “Those who have become eminent in philosophy, politics, poetry and the arts have all had tendencies toward melancholia.”

This idea received wide currency in the 19th and 20th centuries at the hands of psychiatrists and psychoanalysts. Among the great writers, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath all committed suicide. Vincent van Gogh did as well, and earlier he had cut off part of his ear to give to a prostitute. Newton sometimes suffered from extreme paranoia, and Galileo, possibly an alcoholic, was often bedridden with depression. Nevertheless, many psychologists have argued that such cases are the exceptions, not the rule. Some positive psychologists today consider creative genius a human strength or virtue.

A 2005 review of the literature, which summarized studies with varied methodologies, indicates that the association between genius and mental illness has considerable strength. Very creative writers tend to obtain higher scores on the psychopathology-related parts of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a widely accepted personality test. A study using another instrument, the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire, found that extremely creative artists — and high-impact psychologists, for that matter — tend to receive elevated scores on the test’s psychoticism scale, meaning that they are, among other things, egocentric, cold, impulsive, aggressive and tough-minded. Last, highly eminent scientists tend to score higher on sections of the Cattell 16 Personality Factor Questionnaire that signify they are withdrawn, solemn, internally preoccupied, precise and critical. All told, top performers are not a very normal bunch.

Psychiatric studies bolster these results. The rate and intensity of certain psychopathic symptoms, such as depression and alcoholism, are noticeably higher in very creative individuals than in the general population. Research also suggests that these divergent thinkers are more likely to come from family lines that are at higher risk for psychopathology. Even if an extraordinary innovator is “normal”, his or her family members may not be.

In line with these findings, in 2009 psychiatrist Szabolcs Kéri, then at Semmelweis University in Hungary, found a genetic basis for both creativity and psychosis in a variant of the neuregulin 1 gene. In this study, Kéri recruited a group of highly creative individuals and found that the participants who had this specific gene variant, which is linked with an increased risk of developing a mental disorder, also scored higher on measures of creativity.

Out-and-out psychosis, however, can shut down creative genius. This tragic reality was dramatically illustrated in the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind, the biopic about the late Nobel laureate John Nash and his struggles with schizophrenia. The costs and burdens of psychological dysfunction are also immediately apparent in the art of the mentally ill, such as the works preserved in the Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg, Germany, done by psychiatric patients in the early 20th century. Few if any of these artworks show signs of genius. To quote Dryden again, “wits are sure to madness near allied, and thin partitions do their bounds divide.”

Research conducted by psychologist Shelley Carson of Harvard University and her colleagues sought to identify these thin partitions. Creative achievement is positively associated both with cognitive disinhibition — openness to supposedly extraneous ideas, images or stimuli — and higher intelligence and greater working memory. These mental capacities can potentially ameliorate the negative effects of cognitive disinhibition and even channel them to more useful ends. This synergy may well constitute the cognitive basis for serendipity. Not everybody would be able to work out the profound implications of such humdrum events as water overflowing a bathtub or an apple falling from a tree. But Archimedes and Newton did.

Archimedes and Newton both worked in scientific fields, raising the possibility that their brands of creativity may have been similar. A more revealing question might be to investigate how their route to original thought compares with that of a superlative writer or musician. A physicist’s way of thinking has little, if anything, in common with that of a painter. For example, learning how to solve a differential equation has as much utility for a painter as learning linear perspective has for a physicist — zero in most cases. Yet the themes uniting geniuses suggest that a common creative principle may exist. Domain expertise, such as the knowledge of advanced problem-solving strategies, supports thinking that is routine, even algorithmic — it does not inherently lead to the generation of novel, useful and surprising ideas. Something else must permit a person to go beyond tradition and training to reach the summit of genius.

According to a theory proposed in 1960 by psychologist Donald Campbell, creative thought emerges through a process or procedure he termed blind variation and selective retention (BVSR). In short, a creator must try out ideas that might fail before hitting on a breakthrough. Campbell did not precisely define what counts as a blind variation, nor did he discuss in any detail the psychological underpinnings of this process. As a result, his ideas were left open to criticism.

Using a mixture of historical analyses, laboratory experiments, computer simulations, mathematical models and case studies, Professor Simonton from the University of California, has developed BVSR into a comprehensive theory of creative genius in all domains. The blindness of BVSR merely means that ideas are produced without foresight into their eventual utility. The creator must engage in trial-and-error or generate-and-test procedures to determine the worth of an idea. Two common phenomena characterize BVSR thinking: superfluity and backtracking. Superfluity means that the creator generates a variety of ideas, one or more of which turn out to be useless. Backtracking signifies that the creator must often return to an earlier approach after blindly going off in the wrong direction. Superfluity and backtracking are often found together in the same creative episode. Exploring the wrong track obliges a return to options that had been originally cast aside.

The reflections of Hermann von Helmholtz, a prolific physicist with numerous creative breakthroughs to his name, capture this process of discovery:

I had to compare myself with an Alpine climber, who, not knowing the way, ascends slowly and with toil, and is often compelled to retrace his steps because his progress is stopped; sometimes by reasoning, and sometimes by accident, he hits upon traces of a fresh path, which again leads him a little further; and finally, when he has reached the goal, he finds to his annoyance a royal road on which he might have ridden up if he had been clever enough to find the right starting point at the outset.

This account of venturing blindly into uncharted territory and retracing steps resonates with evidence from other eminent creators. As Einstein once said, “If we knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t call it research.”

To see superfluity and backtracking in practice, consider the sketches that Pablo Picasso produced in preparation for his 1937 Guernica painting.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica (1937)
Pablo Picasso, Guernica Sketch 19
Pablo Picasso, Guernica Sketch 22

Among them are clearly “superfluous” sketches, which have a human head on a bull’s body (for example, sketches 19 and 22 — using Picasso’s original numbering). Picasso soon discovered that this was a dead-end and backtracked to an earlier bull’s head drawing (15), before continuing to the final two sketches (26 and 27). Notice that the artist went too far in one direction in the last sketch, from which he backtracked yet again.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica Sketch 15
In dozens of sketches for his painting Guernica, Picasso explored numerous styles.
Pablo Picasso, Guernica Sketch 26
A sampling of his drawings of the bull (shown here with Picasso’s original numbering) reveals the breath of his exploration.
Pablo Picasso, Guernica Sketch 27
Hunting widely for answers, abandoning some ideas and backtracking to earlier concepts are hallmarks of a theory of creativity known as blind variation and selective retention (BVSR).

Even more telling, after that last sketch Picasso largely reversed himself to a much earlier formulation (11), which shares the most unique features with the final version: the widely separated eyes, the thin-lipped open mouth with tongue, the menacing rather than inert visage and the Cubist rather than neoclassic style. These sketches are typical of blind variations both in the arts and in the sciences.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica Sketch 11

Only further research can expand the theory into a comprehensive, predictive model whose claims can be thoroughly tested. Even so, BVSR can help us make sense of certain quirks of creative geniuses, including their personality traits and developmental experiences. Although they devote considerable time to achieving expertise, they also pursue other hobbies. Their openness to new ideas and their breadth of interests infuse them with seemingly irrelevant stimulation that can enrich blind variations.

As 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.” Exceptional thinkers, it turns out, stand on common ground when they launch their arrows into the unknown.

Original article by Dean Keith Simonton (Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California) from the special edition of Scientific American Mind – The Mad Science of Creativity, March 2017. Because today is World Creativity and Innovation Day.

Yuri’s Night

Look Honey! We have a coin celebrating Yuri Gagarin.

Yuri’s Night is a global celebration of humanity’s past, present, and future in space. Yuri’s Night parties and events are held around the world every April 12 in commemoration of Yuri Gagarin becoming the first human to venture into space on April 12, 1961 and the first human to see Earth from space.

Three-quarter profile head-and-shoulders view of Soviet cosmonaut Major Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin in pressure suit and helmet (faceplate raised), probably on or about April 12, 1961, when he made his orbital space flight in Vostok 1.

Some people have argued that Gagarin does not qualify for the title “the first man in space” because he didn’t land inside his aircraft. When Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth on 12 April 1961, the plan had never been for him to land inside his Vostok 1 spacecraft. His spherical re-entry capsule came through the Earth’s atmosphere on a ballistic trajectory. Soviet engineers had not yet perfected a braking system that would slow the craft sufficiently for a human to survive impact. They decided to eject the cosmonaut from his craft. Yuri Gagarin ejected at 7 kilometres from the ground and deployed a parachute at 2.5 kilometres in altitude before landing safely on Earth. Soviet engineers had not discussed this shortcoming with Soviet delegates to the FAI (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale) prior to his flight. They prepared their documents for the FAI omitting this fact. This led everyone to believe that Gagarin had landed inside his spacecraft. It was not until four months later, when Gherman Stepanovich Titov became the second human to orbit the Earth on Vostok 2 and the first person to spend a full day in space (circling Earth 17 times), when the controversy began to brew. Titov owned up to ejecting himself. This led to a special meeting of the delegates to the FAI to re-examine Titov’s spaceflight records. The conclusion of the delegates was to rework the parameters of human spaceflight to recognize that the great technological accomplishment of spaceflight was the launch, orbiting and safe return of the human, not the manner in which he or she landed. Gagarin and Titov’s records remained on the FAI books. Yes, Gagarin did not follow the rules that the FAI established before his flight. However, as is true with any sports organization, the FAI reserved the right to re-examine and reinterpret its rules in light of new knowledge and circumstances. Yuri Gagarin remains indisputably the first person in space and the concept that the first cosmonauts had to land inside their spacecraft is a faded artefact of the transition from aviation to spaceflight.

Even after Soviet-made models of the Vostok spacecraft made it clear that the craft had no braking capability, in 1968 the FAI created the Yuri Gagarin Gold Medal that it awards annually to greatest aviation or space achievement of the previous year.

In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin carried tokens with them to the Moon, to honour three US astronauts and two cosmonauts who died during the early days of spaceflight. One of those symbols, a medal, honoured Yuri Gagarin. The medal is still on the Moon today. A crater on the Moon is named for Gagarin as is asteroid 1772 Gagarin.

Yuri Gagarin was born on a farm in a region west of Moscow in the Soviet Union (now Russia). He learned to fly as a teen and began training as a military pilot at the age of 22. Just two years after Gagarin graduated from flight school, the Soviets began looking for candidates to become cosmonauts (the Soviet term of astronauts). Out of 3000 applicants, they chose 20 men. Gagarin was one of them.

Training in the program was intense. It involved not only technical study and flight training, but also physical and psychological tests. In January 1961, Gagarin was one of 6 candidates chosen for the final testing. As the hopeful cosmonauts prepared for the tests, tragedy touched the Soviet space program. One of the candidates died when fire broke out during a training session. Gagarin and the other four candidates continued with their training.

On April 8, 1961, Soviet officials chose Gagarin to be the first cosmonaut in space. His warm personality was a deciding factor. Officials thought Gagarin would make a good impression in his ensuing wave of public appearances as the first person in space. The next day, Gagarin was told of the decision.

On April 12, 1961, Gagarin entered a Vostok spacecraft to fly on his mission, named Vostok 1, at Baikonur Cosmodrome. At 9:07 am local time, the command to ignite the booster rocket was given. Over the radio Gagarin said, Poyekhali! (“Here we go!”). The rocket began to rise and the booster was ejected. Gagarin and his capsule were in orbit.

Model of Vostok 3KA spacecraft with third stage of launcher. (Wikipedia)

Gagarin orbited Earth once, completing the trip in 108 minutes. Radio communications was lost briefly between tracking stations and the lack of contact worried officials. However, communications was soon resumed – to everyone’s great relief.

Gagarin did not actually fly the spacecraft during his trip. Soviet officials worried that the first cosmonaut might do something wrong, and they locked the controls. He did have a code to unlock them if anything went wrong.

The spacecraft re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere was difficult. The last set of booster rockets was discarded just before re-entry, but they did not completely separate. That caused the spacecraft to jostle as it headed back to the ground. As the spacecraft neared Earth, Gagarin opened a hatch and ejected from the capsule. He opened a parachute and reached the ground in a gentle descent. The historic first spaceflight by humans had been achieved.

This handy infographic gives details of Gagarin’s flight.

Fearing losing Gagarin in a fatal space accident, Soviet officials banned him from any more spaceflights. (President John F. Kennedy essentially did the same to John Glenn, the first US astronaut to orbit Earth in 1962, covertly banning him from any more spaceflights. In 1964, when John Glenn realised this, he left NASA.) Gagarin remained in the space program, helping to train new cosmonauts. In the middle 1960s, Gagarin was promised he could go into space once more and he began flying planes again to regain his status as a pilot. He died in a training flight in 1968 (age 34) when his airplane crashed. (John Glenn did get to fly into space again, on October 29, 1998, aboard Space Shuttle Discovery, becoming the world’s oldest astronaut, at 77.)

Legend says that Gagarin had to relieve himself on the way to the launch pad. And today (male) cosmonauts do so as well: “They leave the bus and stand at the back wheel of the bus, to relieve themselves,” says the European Space Agency. Chris Hadfield talks about the tradition in his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth:

When the driver pulled over to the side of the deserted road, Roman, Tom and I were delighted to get out and breathe some fresh air. We also had a mission: to pee on the rear right tire of the bus, as Yuri Gagarin apparently had. Much is made of this as a tradition, but really, if you’re going to be locked in a rocket ship, unable to leave your seat for quite a few hours, it’s just common sense. However, we had a problem that previous crews had not: we had to figure out how to get out of our suits of downy armour. In the end the suit techs on board had to help us undo all the tricky fasteners they’d painstakingly closed not an hour before, so we were able to urinate manfully on the tire without spoiling our plumage. Female astronauts who bring little bottles of their pee to slash on the tire may feel just as self-conscious, but I doubt it.

The National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC has acquired a bronze sculpture of Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in commemoration of the 55th anniversary year (2016) of the first manned flight to space.

Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, bronze sculpture by Aleksei Dmitrievitch Leonov
National Air and Space Museum, Washington D.C.

The museum also has on display space suits that Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn wore. Both suit designs were adapted from high-altitude pressure suits.

Left: John Glenn wore this space suit on February 20, 1962
Right: Yuri Gagarin wore this SK-1 pressure suit during training exercises for his April 12, 1961, flight on Vostok

Yuri Gagarin wore this SK-1 pressure suit during training exercises for his April 12, 1961, flight on Vostok 1. Notable features include a visored helmet that is not detachable from the suit; the inflatable rubber collar for use in the event of water landing; the bright orange nylon oversuit, which has a mirror sewn into the sleeve to help the cosmonaut locate hard-to-see switches and gauges; and the grey-checked pressure liner with connectors for life-support and communications hoses. The suit also has leather-palm gloves, heavy leather boots, and a leather-covered radio headset.

John Glenn wore this space suit on February 20, 1962, when he became the first American to orbit Earth. Like the Gagarin suit, its design was adapted from high-altitude pressure suits worn by aircraft pilots. Glenn’s suit was a lightweight multi-layered garment with an aluminized nylon cover layer. Thirteen zippers, plus custom-fitted gloves, boots, and helmet, assured a snug fit.

Little Puffles and Honey don’t have a photo with Yuri Gagarin or with John Glenn, but they have a photo with the first real Buzz in space 🙂

With Buzz Lightyear and Magellan T. Bear at National Air and Space Museum

Twenty years after the historic first spaceflight by humans had been achieved, on April 12, 1981, Space Shuttle Columbia made its historic first flight becoming the first winged spaceship to orbit Earth and return to airport landing. While technically Enterprise was the first shuttle, it was not built for spaceflight. Enterprise was built for NASA as part of the Space Shuttle program to perform atmospheric test flights after being launched from a modified Boeing 747. Space Shuttle Columbia was the first space-rated orbiter in NASA’s Space Shuttle fleet.

OV-102 Columbia
Over 22 years of service Columbia completed 27 missions before disintegrating during re-entry near the end of its 28th mission, STS-107 on February 1, 2003, resulting in the deaths of all seven crew members.