History Trail: Gustave Eiffel


Gustave Eiffel’s famous tower celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. Peter Stewart looks at the life and works of this engineering visionary

Forever linked to one of the world’s most iconic landmarks, Gustave Eiffel is considered by many to be the ‘magician of iron’. His best-known creations – the Eiffel Tower and the inner support structure of the Statue of Liberty – are testament to his penchant for utmost mathematical accuracy and grand design.

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel was born in 1832 in the Côte-d’Or département of France into a successful middle-class family. Educated at the Lycée Royal in Dijon, he was anything but conscientious until his last two years, when he began to work hard in order to obtain his baccalauréat in humanities and science.

He continued his studies at the Collège Sainte-Barbe in Paris, before moving on to the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in Paris where he specialised in chemistry and graduated in 1855. He then began work for engineer Charles Nepveu and soon unveiled his first design – a 22-metre-long iron bridge for the Saint-Germain-des-Prés railway.

Setting up his own business in 1865, Eiffel began constructing railway stations and bridges throughout France while also assisting in the design of the exhibition hall that would host the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris.

In 1868, Eiffel entered into business with fellow engineer and École Centrale graduate Théophile Seyrig, creating Eiffel et Cie, and in a partnership that lasted less than two years, the pair were commissioned to build a railway terminus in Budapest and a bridge over the River Duoro in Portugal, among other projects.

Eiffel was by now enjoying great success and in 1881 was approached by Auguste Bartholdi to finish work on the Statue of Liberty, following the untimely death of its original engineer, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Eiffel designed a new support system and then proceeded to build the giant statue from the bottom up before disassembling it for shipment to New York.

But Eiffel’s greatest accomplishment was, without doubt, the Eiffel Tower. The plan for the tower, originally designed in conjunction with Maurice Koechlin and Émile Nougier, was intended for the 1889 Exposition Universelle. Surprisingly, Eiffel is said to have initially shown little enthusiasm for the project until Stephen Sauvestre was commissioned to add the architectural decorations. On 26 January 1887 work began on the foundations and by the end of March 1889 the tower was complete and Eiffel planted a French flag at the top.

Eiffel withdrew from the world of business soon afterwards, when a canal project in Panama ended amid allegations of fraud. He then turned his attention to the field of dynamics, using his famous tower for numerous experiments involving the effects of wind forces which would influence such pioneers as the Wright brothers. He died on 27 December, 1923, at his home in Rue Rabelais in Paris. The engineer who insisted on high standards of accuracy in drawing and manufacture will be forever remembered for his internationally recognised landmarks.

Things to see

1. Eiffel Tower

The real difficulty facing engineers on the Eiffel Tower was the construction of the four legs and Eiffel’s decision to assemble

a support scaffold soon generated such headlines as ‘Eiffel suicide’ and ‘Gustave Eiffel has gone mad’. Despite being labelled by some as modern and distasteful, the tower became an instant tourist attraction when it opened. However, it would take several years for both critics and Parisians to view the tower as a marvel of modern architecture.

2. Garabit Viaduct

Just before he began work on his eponymous tower, Eiffel was given the contract to build a huge railway bridge across the River Truyère in the Massif Central. The 565-metre-long bridge opened in 1885 and at a height of 122 metres, was the tallest bridge in the world at the time.

3. Distillerie Combier

Gustave Eiffel even left his mark on the drinks industry; designing the distilling room at the Distillerie Combier (www.combier.fr) in Saumur, in the Loire Valley. It features ten copper alembics and a red iron walkway to allow distillers to observe the stills from above. The distillery, whose range includes orange liqueurs and absinthe, runs guided tours from April to October.

4. Lucky dip

Other examples of Eiffel’s work can be seen across France: visit the Bon Marché department store in Paris, the Bordeaux-Saint-Jean railway station, Les Halles in Dijon or the swing bridge in Dieppe.

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