Meet Mr. Gustave Eiffel, the ultimate engineer
Gustave Eiffel — the following is found in the September 1976 issue of ‘Goodall News’, Volume XXXIIII, Number 5
The man versus the myth
A friend of ours is a walking, talking encyclopedia of nickel knowledge. You’re probably familiar with the type. He knows the height of Mt. Everest, the batting average of Ty Cobb throughout his entire career, and the name of the author and the lyrics of “God Save the King”. He can recite chapter and verse of the ‘Guinness Book of World Records. But one day we got him. We asked what Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel contributed to the advance of mankind. IT seemed beneath his dignity even to respond, which he did without a second thought. “The Eiffel Tower, of course.” We encouraged him to offer another advancement, but that’s as far as he could take it.
In all fairness, there is a fuzzy impression of Mr. Eiffel among the general population. Even his name has become tangled up in our language. We once heard a far-out, artistic type described as “living in the Eiffel Tower”. And another person thought the Tower was thus named because it was such an ‘eye-full’ to behold. Perhaps the most unjust of all is the notion that the Tower was built by somebody else and, like Kennedy Airport, was simply named for Eiffel, who was somehow famous for some other reason.
Even Eiffel himself, in the course of his lifetime, realized Eiffel, the man, was overshadowed by Eiffel, the Tower. “I should be jealous of the Tower,” he once remarked. “The world thinks it is my only work. But I have done other things, too, after all.” And other things he did do, indeed. He designed the lock system for the Panama Canal. He was a master rigger, devising ingenious techniques for constructing bridges over tremendous spans in remote parts of the world. He designed and constructed the core of wrought iron that supports the Statue of Liberty. And, if you’re ready for this, he built the world’s first workable wind tunnel and was one of the earliest pioneers in aviation.
The magician of wrought iron
For the obvious reason that the Eiffel Tower is in Paris, it is generally thought that Eiffel was French. He was, in fact, a German, born to a well-to-do family by the name of Boenickhausen. When the family moved to Paris, they changed the name to one that was more comfortable for the French tongue, which also spared posterity having to live with the Boenickhausen Tower. His father served in Napoleon’s Army and his mother ran a successful coal and iron business. He was brought up with all the advantages and got off to a conspicuous start in his education by flunking the entrance exams for engineering school. As a result, he went to the equivalent of a trade school, where he studied chemistry.
He soon shifted into civil engineering and his career immediately blossomed. At the age of 26, he was planning and directing the construction of bridges for a railroad, and on his first major project, which spanned the Gironde River, his genius for mechanical invention began to surface. He designed and built his own caissons for working under water and was probably the first construction engineer to use compressed air for the foundation excavations. To put this achievement into perspective, remember that this was at a period in history when the main construction tools consisted of the pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow.
An incident that occurred during the project offers an interesting sidelight to Eiffel’s character. It was his style to supervise his workers, elegantly dressed in suit, tie, top hat and other haberdashery of the day. When, on this occasion, one of his workmen fell into the river, Eiffel quickly removed his coat and shoes, dove into the water and pulled the fortunate fellow to shore. Later, the workmen struck a medal and presented it to him when the job was finished.
As one might expect, he eventually established his own construction firm and went on to build just about everything – factories, churches, and especially railroad bridges. He seemed to like the special challenge that bridges presented. A case in point was a railroad viaduct in Portugal, which required a single span of 525 feet over a 200-foot deep gorge. Eiffel’s solution was to build an arch-supported bridge by the suspension-bridge technique. He built the main arch piece by piece form each side of the gorge, using suspension cables anchored on the banks. When the two halves were finished, they met precisely in the middle of the arch, were joined, and the suspension cables removed. Again, to give this feat it just due, consider that all the metal components at that time were hand-forged and that the smallest mistake in calculations or tolerances could be disastrous.
The interesting thing about Eiffel’s solutions is that they were the essence of simplicity and common sense. On another bridge project, the location in Bolivia was so remote that it could only be reached by foot. Eiffel went to the drawing board and came up with a bridge that could be put together with prefabricated components of 150 pounds or less, which could then be carried to the erection site on the back of a llama. Consequently, by the middle of his career, Eiffel became known across China and Europe as the “magician of wrought iron, who “sold bridges by the kilo and the meter”.
Eiffel, the Tower
The idea for a 1,000 foot tower, believe it or not, was first proposed in Philadelphia. It was supposed to mark a century of progress for the Centennial Exposition of 1876, but, in a manner of speaking, it never got off the ground. About ten years later, in France, there was need of a symbol to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, and Eiffel, needless to say, was the logical candidate to plan and construct it. He approached the project with customary conviction and singleness of purpose. The French government contributed on-fifth of the cost and Eiffel personally went into debt to raise the additional amount of some five million francs. He also assumed personal liability in the event of damage or death caused if the tower were to topple onto the residents below.
Eiffel manufactured each of the prefabricated sections in his own foundries, making them of iron, instead of steel, because of his vast experience with wrought iron. Again his expertise prevailed. Tolerances were extremely critical, and of the 12,000 pieces, legend has it that not one of them had to be filed, cut, or otherwise adapted to fit. Meanwhile, the foundation was being prepared over an area of almost four acres, and within 14 months the first platform was bolted into place. It is interesting to note that the arches below the platform were added purely for cosmetic and psychological purposes. The design of the tower was so structurally sound that support of the arches was not required, other than to give the appearance of strength.
From this point on, erection was relatively simple, expedited by innovations such as a field kitchen on the nearest platform so workers didn’t have to go back to the ground for lunch. Apparently, Mr. Eiffel was something of a safety inspector also. The project’s only fatality was a young worker who fell from a girder while showing off for his girl friend.
Aesthetically, the appearance of the Tower is in the eye of the beholder. To some, it is a work of art. To others, an “iron monster”. Maupassant, the famous French novelist, made a point of dining in one of the Tower’s four restaurants because it was the only place in Paris he could eat without seeing “the blasted thing.”
From an engineer’s point of view, the Tower is a technical marvel. Forget the fact that more than 2.5 million rivet holes in 12,000 prefabricated structural members, each of which required an individual drawing, lined up perfectly. Forget the cranes, rigging systems, and wind calculations required. What impresses civil engineers to this day is the balance, stability and lightness of the structure. Consider this: if a hollow cylinder were placed over the entire Tower, the air within the cylinder would weigh more than the iron in the Tower itself — roughly 9,000 tons of air compared to 7,000 tons of iron.
And with all that amazing technology, such a tremendous scientific achievement of man over his environment, how ironic is it that on the opening day, with 1000’s of dignitaries standing by, the elevators did not work. Undaunted, Mr. Eiffel, then 56 years of age, led the crowd up the 1,710 stairs. When the group reached the top, Mr. Eiffel was barely breathing hard but half of the crowd was missing, due to fatigue. Mr. Eiffel raised the French colors on what he called ‘the world’s tallest flagpole’.
What do you do for an encore?
Five years later, at the age of 61, Eiffel retired formally to his apartment in the Tower. Informally, he went to battle with his ‘old enemy’, the wind. He began by dropping objects of various shapes from the Tower and noting the characteristics of the descent for each shape. It was probably walking up and down all those stairs to retrieve his missiles that drove him to it, but eventually he conceived an easier way and built the first practical wind tunnel, on the ground floor of the Tower. This was in 1894, and his discoveries in aerodynamics, with wings and propeller shapes, were so advance they were used in the design of fighter planes in 1913 for World War One. For this he was awarded the Langley Medal for aerodynamics by the Smithsonian Institute, an honor bestowed only twice before, upon Glenn Curtis and the Wright brothers. Alexander Graham Bell made the presentation. It might be said that Gustave Eiffel, at the age of 80, had been successful in establishing a second career.
He spent the next 10 years teaching his grandsons how to fence, touring the countryside in a new-fangled contraption called the automobile, and writing a family history. He died at the age of 91.
In the “Golden Book” of the Tower, another gentleman of some technical achievement wrote: “To M. Eiffel, The Engineer, the brave builder of so gigantic and original a specimen of modern engineering from one who has the greatest respect and admiration for all engineers, including the Good Lord.” It was signed by Thomas Edison.