The story began in 1886 in the city of Paris, where Monsieur Gustave Eiffel had just won the 800-franc first prize in a design competition offered by the Centennial Exposition Committee. The contest was intended to select the design for a monument, one that was to be a symbol of France’s rapid economic and technological progress.
Monsieur Eiffel’s submission called for a tall iron tower, which he felt would symbolize the city’s progression from the more traditional stone of which Paris was built to a modern material. He also stressed the design’s usefulness for scientific research, being well suited to telegraphy and meteorology. The judges liked his idea and gave him permission to begin building his tower. The self-appointed intellectual and cultural guardians of French arts, however, had other ideas.
A barrage of critism
The criticism was relatively mild at first; most people didn’t really believe the design they saw on paper could ever be translated into an actual physical structure. The opposition only began to gather steam when they saw the ground being prepared for the tower, and realized that crazy Monsieur Eiffel was really going to build his ‘monstrous iron structure’.
There was much protesting, the most significant coming from 47 artists, among them Guy de Maupassant, Alexandre Dumas, Charles Gounod and Francois Coppée, who published a letter in Le Temps registering their ‘Protest Against the Tower of Monsieur Eiffel’. Since the protesters were some of the most foremost artists in the country, their words were elegantly scathing. The tower was called, among other things, “a belfry skeleton”, “a truly tragic street lamp”, “a half-built factory pipe, a carcass waiting to be fleshed out with freestone or brick, a funnel-shaped grill, a hole-riddled suppository”, and a “mast of iron gymnasium apparatus, incomplete, confused and deformed”.
At that time, engineering was considered a lowly occupation, fit only for the lower classes, its practitioners incapable of any aesthetic distinction or artistic sensibility. There was therefore much surprise when the maligned Monsieur Eiffel gave a thoroughly articulate and impassioned rebuttal of the critics’ arguments, a move that conceded him a victory over his critics.
More than the artistic elite protested however, as one woman sued the city to remove it, and many of people living around the site complained, fearing the metal from the construction would strip away in strong winds and damage their buildings. The only way Eiffel could ensure the tower was completed was to assume full liability for it, even to the point of agreeing to demolish the tower should it prove to be a danger. Given his assumption of full responsibility, the executive committee reaffirmed its commitment and despite the protests, the construction went ahead.
Trials of construction and a successful opening
The building of the Eiffel Tower is a fascinating saga of engineering genius, hard work and above all, human determination. Monsieur Eiffel had two years to complete his project, and to do so, he introduced technological innovations that had never been used before, and which for the most part proved wildly successful. Every piece of the tower was made in Eiffel’s factory and shipped to the site to be reassembled. Thousands of drawings were made to ensure that no guesswork was needed. The design of the tower was refined continuously to ensure that wind pressure, Eiffel’s biggest concern, would not bend the Tower. He was highly successful, for the tower never bends more than 9 cm in even the strongest wind.
The tower finally opened in 1889, to great acclaim. Over the next few years however, its future would still be in peril, as aesthetically offended opponents demanded the tower be removed. In fact, Monsieur Eiffel only had a lease on the Tower for twenty years; after that, the Tower was to be dismantled and perhaps moved elsewhere. It was only the immense scientific value of the Tower that permitted it to remain standing, and not all agreed with that either. Scornful critic Guy de Maupassant was to declare for the rest of his life that the reason he left France was to get away from the Eiffel Tower. Only as time went by did it become accepted, and finally appreciated, for its aesthetic values.
The Tower also became something of an international marker, as it was the tallest building in the world for almost twenty years until 1929, when the Chrysler Building took away the mantle. Despite the loss however, the tower will always hold a place in history as the site of the first radio transmission and first television transmission and other scientific achievements, holding true to Monsieur Eiffel’s vision of a tower to symbolize France’s foremost standing in the world of science.
Attracting crackpots and daredevils
The Eiffel Tower has since drawn thousands of admirers from around the globe. It has also drawn a remarkable number of crackpots and daredevils, many of who gained notoriety for stunning (and frequently stupid) stunts. One of the first was an Austrian tailor who used a rudimentary parachute in an attempt to fly from the first level of the Tower. His parachute failed him, as did his heart a few seconds before he hit the ground. The next two people who performed the same stunt were equipped with better parachutes and landed safely in the Champs-de-Mar garden. In the eighties, an American pilot lost his license as the result of flying his airplane between the Tower’s legs.
Once, a local baker climbed the 347 steps to the first level of the Tower on stilts. Not to be outdone, the next man climbed them by hopping on one leg. One journalist reversed the flow and rode down the steps on a bicycle. The next man went down on a unicycle, and in a fine display of one-upmanship, the next two men rode down from the second floor on the first French-built motorbikes.
There are numerous other stories of astonishing behaviour surrounding the Tower, but the most infamous example is undoubtedly that of Mr Victor Lustig, an international swindler best known for having managed to sell the Eiffel Tower. In 1925, Lustig obtained counterfeit government stationery to create documents giving him the right to sell the Tower for scrap metal. He claimed too much money was needed to maintain it. One scrap metal dealer fell for it, and when the scam was uncovered, was so embarrassed he refused to press charges.
From the moment of its conception and for much of its life, the Tower has had to endure much opposition, against which Monsieur Eiffel doggedly struggled. Despite the best efforts of these critics however, Monsieur Eiffel was to have the last laugh, for today the Eiffel Tower still stands proudly over a city that has come to love the creation their ancestors once scorned.