Alexandre Eiffel: Towering Accomplishments in Engineering

eiffel tower

December marks the birth month of Gustave Alexandre Eiffel, the French engineer who designed and built the famous Eiffel Tower, for many the very symbol of Paris since its completion in 1889. The construction of the Eiffel Tower represented a turning point in engineering methods from the past to the future. The task was a tremendous challenge and began with 50 designers making 5,300 drawings by hand—no computers, no CAD. The foundation was dug in five months time, by dozens of workers using only shovels—no earthmovers, no bulldozers.

About 2.5 million rivets were used, all installed by hand—no bolts, no welds. But many innovations were also developed during its construction, including the use of about 18,000 interchangeable, pre-constructed parts that were built in a factory and fit together on site. Hydraulic jacks were also used to support the trusses in the angled transitions from the first level to the second level. These and other innovations made this building a true giant of engineering in its time.

Cultural Context

The 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris marked the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution and glorified the achievements of the Industrial Revolution. The two decades prior to the Eiffel Tower's construction were a hotbed for inventions. From the vaccine for rabies to the typewriter, from the light bulb to the four-stroke engine and the dirigible and wireless telegraph, these leaps in learning during the industrial revolution brought growth and opportunity. Sometimes called the "Spring of Technology," one of this era's most visible achievements in engineering was the Eiffel Tower, which employed numerous innovations and remained the tallest building in the world at 312 meters high until the Chrysler Building in New York eclipsed it by seven meters in 1930.

Although the Eiffel Tower was meant to last only 20 years, it has stood for over a century, and although some of the original elevators have been removed, some of them have been meticulously maintained and still operate efficiently. These elevators were quite an achievement for the time, because never before had elevators been used for such height and load requirements. The combined total distance of their annual journey is equal to two and a half circumnavigations around the world—or more than 103,000 kilometers.

Controversy and Acceptance

Like many new innovations, the Eiffel Tower was not universally accepted when it was built. A group of artists, writers (including Guy de Maupassant and Alexandre Dumas), sculptors and architects protested by writing a letter that denounced the tower as ugly and asked, "Will the city of Paris thus continue to be associated with the strange and venal imaginations of a machine-maker, bringing upon itself dishonor and an ugliness that can never be corrected?"

Eiffel replied in kind, with his belief that "the Tower will have its own beauty." Just because he was an engineer preoccupied with stability and durability, he said, did not mean he did not seek to achieve elegance. Aside from structural concerns with wind resistance, his goal was to construct something colossal that reflected the times. "The Tower will be the highest edifice ever raised by man—will it not therefore be grandiose as well, in its way?" he asked. He fittingly compared the tower to the Great Pyramid of Khufu in Egypt, which stood as the tallest man-made structure for four millennia until finally surpassed by the Eiffel Tower.

If you are a student attending engineering school, studying the Eiffel Tower and its cultural and historical context will give you a deeper insight into how our own world today is shaped by science and engineering. Eiffel's work and attitude towards scientific experimentation and engineering innovation continue to be an inspiration to students all over the world.