I must have been around four years old when I first 'climbed' the Eiffel Tower. I told my father I wanted to walk up the stairs, as one does at that age.
He relented and of course, within a minute I was in his arms, being carried up 328 steps.
I was never able to pull that trick on him again, but I still remember the awe and wonder (and yes, a little bit of terror) at seeing Paris, already beautiful, stretched out below so perfectly even a four-year old could catch her breath.
I've returned since then, riding up the easy way, and each time, I discover something new about the first Iron Lady － things I never expected to find. She truly is one of the more unusual sights of Paris and one of your must-see places when you travel to the city.
There's no getting around your Eiffel Tower history lesson, but bear with me because some of these things will be new, even to you!
First, the big picture.
The tower was built by (or under the oversight of) French civil engineer Gustave Eiffel in honour of the 1889 Exposition Universelle, or World's Fair. The fair would celebrate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, at a time of rapid modernization and innovation.
This particular design won the competition but Paris was appalled. The monstrous structure, as it was called, wouldn't exactly fit in with classical Parisian architecture, and anyone who was anyone fought to prevent its building. (You may recall similar arguments were made about the Louvre pyramid, now accepted and yes, even beloved).
Although it was named after Gustave, the tower was actually designed by two engineers (Maurice Koechlin and Émile Nouguier) and an architect (Stephen Sauvestre), all of whom worked for Eiffel.
In fact, when the engineers first showed him their original design, he didn't even like it and it required several iterations before he gave it the green light.
The original design had a central pylon and sat on a monumental arch. Yes, I can imagine how awful that might look.
The initial sketch was drawn up in 1884 and the first foundations poured in 1887. I won't get into the detail of the concrete slabs and girders and limestone blocks but suffice it to say that at the time, the work was monumental and extremely complex, with designs specified to within 1mm (and they weren't off, they were perfect). Scaffolding was made of wood and small cranes were raised along the tower as it was built, a bit hard to imagine today.
Bits and pieces of the tower were manufactured in the nearby Parisian suburb of Levallois-Perret and brought to the site by horse and cart. In all, 18,038 pieces were assembled using 2.5 million rivets, and based on 1,700 general drawings and 3,629 detailed drawings. More than 300 people were involved in the construction work, which benefited from plenty of safety features, such as rails and screens to prevent workers from falling. The official death toll was a single death (although a contemporary blurb in the New York Times hinted that as many as 100 might have died).
Despite the record-breaking construction (it took 2 years, 2 months and 5 days), it was such a complex undertaking that many people thought it would never be built... and if it did, that it would topple over at the first gust of wind and destroy the beauty that was Paris.
As soon as Paris saw the plans, it was up in arms.
"This high and skinny pyramid of iron ladders," wrote Guy de Maupassant.
"A half-built factory pipe," clamored French art critic Joris-Karl Huysmans.
"This truly tragic street lamp," Catholic essayist Léon Bloy called it.
These and other artistic luminaries formed the ‘Committee of Three Hundred’, one member for each meter of the tower's height.
Criticism and insults were flung around, leading to a highly publicized open letter by artists and writers to the exhibition's authorities and which was published in Le Temps:
Eiffel, not one to bite his tongue, was quick to reply. Here's an excerpt of what he had to say.
The Eiffel Tower controversy faded once the tower was built, however. It was a stunning success, and welcomed two million visitors during the World's Fair alone. Today, of course, it is among the world's most visited attractions (some say the most visited).
Funny thing though, the tower wasn't supposed to stay up.
It was designed to be dismantled after 20 years, once Eiffel had recouped his 80% investment, and sold off for scrap metal. (The mind liquefies.)
Rather than see his masterpiece destroyed, Eiffel hatched a plan: it involved science.
If he could demonstrate its scientific value, he would guarantee its survival. This was, after all, an era of great inventions. So he built an antenna on top of the tower and launched a series of successful wireless experiments, which caught the attention of the French military, and the rest is history.
When World War I erupted a few years later, the tower's value as a radio transmitter was consolidated and it became essential to communications with ships and to intercept enemy transmissions.
But every so often, the tower's existence came under threat.
Towards the end of World War II, Hitler, incensed at his failure to win the war, ordered Paris razed, and the tower along with it. Fortunately, the city's German military governor at the time, Dietrich von Choltiz, was (like many) convinced Hitler had gone crazy and simply ignored the order. We thank him for that.
Then, in the 1960s, President Charles de Gaulle had planned to dismantle the Eiffel Tower and send it to Montreal for Expo 67, having apparently made a secret deal with Quebec. Thankfully, the Eiffel Tower's management said No, not trusting the government to bring it back.
There have been plenty of movies about its destruction and threats against it, but she still stands, an emblem of daring and a symbol of French technological genius (or insanity, if you were living in pre-tower Paris), not to mention the more than 120 broadcast antennae that sit at its summit.
I love the fact that Eiffel built himself a secret apartment inbu the Eiffel Tower .
And all of Paris, those same Parisians who had vilified Eiffel for even building the tower, clamoured for an invite 'up there', 285 meters above Paris. High society cajoled, begged and even tried to rent the apartment but Eiffel stood firm, possibly smarting from the earlier snubs. Instead, he stuck to a rarefied guest list of his own choosing, the most often-cited guest being Thomas Edison, who apparently gave Eiffel a sound recording machine.
The Eiffel Tower secret apartment was a cosy place (compared to the rest of the modern metallic tower), with a bathroom and a bit of furniture － but no bedroom, which hints the owner never intended to live there. Indeed, he used it to entertain guests, of course, but mostly to run weather and aerodynamic experiments, because it was ideally situated at the top.
You can now tour the apartment, which has (probably superfluous) wax statues of Eiffel, his daughter Claire and Thomas Edison.
Far below the apartment, below the first floor balcony, 72 prominent French scientists and engineers involved in designing the tower had their names engraved into the metal and painted gold. It's worth noting that these scientists weren't modern － most had been active during the French Revolution of the end of the 18th century. Their names remind us of past genius, and are also familiar as street names: Rue Foucault in Paris, named for Léon Foucault of pendulum fame, who proved that the earth rotates; Rue Gay-Lussac, also in Paris, for the French chemist who pioneered the study of gas movements; Rue Joseph Fourier in Chartres, in honour of the mathematician who undertook ground-breaking work in heat transfer and vibrations; and the Rue Ampère, for André-Marie Ampère, founder of the science of electromagnetism. (Here's the full list of names, if you're curious.)
At some point the engravings were, sadly, covered up. But sensibly, the tower's management restored the names in the 1980s and, a few years ago, had their tarnished surface repainted in gold.
Lovely as the homage might be, the list is male only and doesn't include the name of mathematician Sophie Germain, despite her important work on the theory of elasticity, vital to building the Eiffel Tower. Surely she wasn't left out because she was a woman...
We know him for the Eiffel Tower, but that's not his only claim to fame. Gustave Eiffel was born in Dijon (of mustard fame) and, fascinated by metal structures, started his own construction and research firm, with considerable success.
His many non-tower accomplishments include these:
His last effort was his most noteworthy － in terms of failure: the locks of the Panama Canal, a venture that ended in scandal when the company building the canal (not his) was liquidated. Eiffel, who wasn't at fault, was nonetheless fined and imprisoned for a while.
The Eiffel Tower's scientific vocation has been well documented.
We know about the meteorology lab on the third floor and its experiments with aerodynamics and physics. But what you might not know is that Eiffel shared his 'lab' with plenty of other scientists. An intriguing discovery was made here: cosmic rays, those tiny high-energy particles that come from outer space.
Vastly more mundane and arguable most useful was Eiffel's invention of the garbage chute, concocted in response to the need to evacuate all the construction material from the tower during building － there was no space to store waste in the tower itself. It was at the time a simple invention: a long hollow tube fixed to the tower frame, through which the garbage found its way downward.
A structure as tall and as visible as the Eiffel Tower is irresistible, commercially speaking. Whatever it wears will be seen by every Parisian.
So it is with no surprise that in 1925, carmaker Citroen was able to stick its name down the entire length of the tower, an ugly reminder that all is fair when it comes to business. That habit was soon quashed.
Less greedy but equally controversial was the proposal by an AIDS charity to clothe the entire tower with a big red condom. The request was turned down but at least the cause was a good one.
But the tower does support worthy causes, such as the fight against cancer, for which it was lit entirely in pin, or in blue (with the 12 stars of the EU flag) to celebrate France's turn at the European Presidency, or yet again as a symbol of the 2015 Paris climate conference － in green.
That wasn't the end of it and periodically, someone comes up with an idea to use the Eiffel Tower as a prop or as part of a work of art: a Portuguese artist in 2010 who wanted to cover it in a hand-crocheted quilt, or a wildly expensive 2011 proposal to cover the tower entirely with plants.
But perhaps the most outlandish proposal was the very first one, made when the tower was still being built: to shield sensitive Parisians from the "hollow chandelier", as some called the Eiffel Tower, it should be hidden inside an artificial rock 300m high, with waterfalls cascading down the exterior.
Well, not everything is art.
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