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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
Little bears on the first platform 🙂
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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