Today, Gustave Eiffel builds much more than a
tower. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
It was 1857. Eiffel was only
25. He'd just been given his first big job. It was
a cast-iron railway bridge, a third of a mile long.
And so began one of the great engineering careers.
Writer Vilma Barr tells how young Eiffel left his
father's vinegar distillery in Dijon's mustard
& vinegar region. He went off to study chemical
engineering. He meant to come back and make better
vinegar. Then a family squabble ended that hope.
So Eiffel went to work for a railway company. By
1867 he'd already created a rich legacy of
iron-work. Then he set up his own structural design
business, and the real fun began.
He built a half-mile bridge in Portugal and the
railway station in Budapest -- a bridge in China,
an observatory in Nice. He built prefab iron
bridges and churches. One of the churches is still
used in Mexico. He built the Statue of Liberty's
Then, in 1889, he finished his Tower. It made us
forget all else he did. Still, he wasn't done yet.
In 1903, just before the Wright Brothers flew, a
much older Eiffel set up a lab on the second
platform of the Tower. Now he was turning his
attention to flight. He measured wind resistance by
dropping airfoils and measuring their rate of fall.
The Eiffel Tower had become an early wind tunnel.
A year later he made the Tower into the first great
radio transmitter. By the age of 66 he'd created
his own radio network. With it, he reached Berlin,
North Africa, and finally America.
But it's the Tower we remember. I've always been
struck that real beauty has to evoke its complement
-- which is ugliness. True beauty harbors defiance.
It pre-empts expectation.
The artistic community shrieked its horror as
Eiffel's monstrosity rose up in the middle of the
1889 Paris Exposition. Guy de Maupassant called it
"an assemblage of iron ladders." Léon Bloy
said Paris was imperiled by
this positively tragic lamppost springing up
from its bowels . . . like a beacon of disaster and
Finally, there that lovely tracery of
iron stood. It's a structure of such subtle delicacy
that an exact one-foot scale model would weigh only a
third of an ounce! The design is that elegant and
economical. In the end, we caught on to what it was
Eiffel had seen. In 1919 a French writer said,
Great God, what faith its engineer must have had
in terrestrial gravitation.
For 65 years Eiffel took us from
railways to radios. And, along the way, he changed
our artistic vision. First he shaped radical new
beauty. Then he waited. And finally our eyes could
see that beauty too.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
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.
Let me explain that astonishing "third-of-an-ounce"
calculation. The Eiffel Tower weighs 10,600 tons or
339,200,000 ounces. It is 985 feet tall. Since the
mass of a precise scale model will decrease as the
cube of the ratio of heights, I divided the number
of ounces by 985 cubed to check Keim's claim that a
one-foot model would wiegh 1/4 ounce. I got a
slightly higher number -- 0.355 ounces.
And that would be a model made of structural steel
-- an absolutely gossamer model of miniature
Photo by John Lienhard
Looking down from within the tower, a quarter of
the way up
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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