Today, Eiffel builds two towers. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Alexandre Gustave Eiffel was
born in Dijon in 1832 and trained as an engineer at
the Ecole Centrale de
Paris. He designed bridges and viaducts in his
early life, and he took up architecture later. He
was part of a failed French attempt to build a
Panama Canal in 1893. As a very old man, he turned
his ever-adaptable mind to the new technology of
the 20th century -- to flight. In fact, he designed
one of the early wind tunnels.
I'll tell you about another tower he designed --
one that's even more familiar than the Eiffel
Tower. But first let's look at the one that carries
his name. He built the wild, seemingly mad Eiffel
Tower for the 1889 Paris Exhibition, and it has
marked France to this very day. Who can think of
Paris without seeing that 900-foot pylon rising out
of its center?
Of course, Paris was horrified when it learned what
he was up to. A group of famous writers and artists
wrote a manifesto against the tower. They said,
We ... protest with all our strength and wrath
... against the erection ... of the monstrous
Eiffel Tower ... This arrogant iron mongery [--
this] disgraceful skeleton ... [E]ven commercial
America wouldn't want it.
That's not so much short-sightednesss as it is a
reminder that new ideas are alien, no matter how
good they are. Eiffel was vindicated when tourists
quickly paid for the tower. And he plainly told us
what he was doing:
The curves of the four piers rising from an
enormous base and narrowing toward the top, will
give a great impression of strength and beauty.
The remark about "commercial America" in the
artists' manifesto was ironic, because five years
earlier it was Eiffel who designed the huge steel
tower inside the Statue of Liberty. The Eiffel
Tower, for all its grace, did have a hard
commercial side. But the Statue of Liberty
symbolized the ideals of France and America.
The Eiffel Tower contrasts starkly with the Statue
of Liberty. Liberty, the largest statue ever built,
is a delicate, graceful copper shell. She's been
spun around Eiffel's complex but invisible
skeleton. And she speaks explicitly to the French
and American love of freedom. The Eiffel Tower
makes no such direct symbolic appeal. Its
esthetic purpose is the structure itself. It's
no more than simple beauty in its own right.
Eiffel fascinates us by shifting so smoothly
between two radically different esthetic aims. It's
wonderful enough to have stamped two countries with
their identifying marks. But Eiffel's greater
accomplishment was branding us in such completely
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Levy, M.P., Structure and Sculpture.
Engineering and Humanities (J.H. Schaub
and S.K. Dickison, eds.). Malabar, FL, R.E. Krieger
Pub. Co., 1987, Section 3.3.
Barr, V., Alexandre Gustave Eiffel: A Towering
Genius. Mechanical Engineering, February
1992, pp. 58-65.
Keim, J. A., La Tour Eiffel. France:
Editions "Tel", 1950.
I am grateful to Jean-Paul Clech for additional
counsel. Mr. Clech has pointed out another
webpage, which gives equations that
might account for the unique shape of the tower.
This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1706.
Photo by John Lienhard
Looking down from within the tower, a quarter of
the way up
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H.
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