A good friend gave me a copy of Eiffel’s Tower by Jill Jonnes and I had the pleasure to read it last month. It’s not just the fascinating story of how the Eiffel Tower was built, it is an equally engaging series of vignettes about this amazing era of discovery. Jonnes does an excellent job researching and telling the story of the highly controversial centerpiece of the Exposition Universelle of 1889, while interweaving fascinating stories of life in Paris and the world in the late 1800’s.
The Exposition Committee commissioned bids for the central monument and received over 100 applications including everything from an enormous water sprinkler, to a giant reproduction of a guillotine as a monument to the French Revolution only 100 years before. Eiffel’s plan began to emerge as the winning design, generating substantial controversy and dissent. Gustave Eiffel designed an iron tower that would be the tallest in the world, at over 1,000 feet. It would dwarf the next highest structure, the Washington Monument at only 550 feet. Most scoffed that it was an impossible engineering feet.
If anyone could accomplish the task, it was Gustave Eiffel, recognized as France’s greatest railway builder and the designer of the frame of the Statue of Liberty. But even before the prize was awarded, the criticisms began to flow, fast and furious. Among the first were protests from a committee of prominent French Architects — furious that Gustave Eiffel, ‘a mere engineer and builder of railway bridges’ could think that his ‘odious column of bolted metal’ would be worth of a central position in their city. A large group formed to campaign against it, because ‘the construction of a safe one-thousand-foot tower was technically impossible, as no building that tall could resist the power of the wind’. Eiffel proved them all wrong.
Fraught with problems from financing this enormous project, to obtaining an absolutely level first floor platform, to installing elevators that were safe and could climb to the top, Eiffel ignored the critics and slowly but surely, he overcame each problem. For example, to solve the problem of building a level first floor platform, which would serve as the critical base on which to build the rest of this soaring structure, Eiffel invented a system of adjustable jacks in each of the four bases. The description of of the cold and winds and the conditions the welders and workmen had to work under are extremely vivid.
In terms of financing, the challenge was enormous as Eiffel had to raise 3,500,0000 francs of the total 5,000,000 cost. He was allowed to keep the concession of the tower for 20 years to help recover the costs.
When it came to the elevators, the awards were given to a French company, Roux, and to the relatively new American company, Otis Elevator. The Otis Company lost money on the deal, but kept their word and built a safe elevator to the second floor, much quieter than the French one used at lower level. Eiffel and the Committee were concerned about the new design and its safety, so the head of the Otis elevator company came to Paris to make a graphic demonstration The elevator was loaded with 3,000 kilograms of lead to simulate a load full of people. Next, the elevators were fascinated with ordinary thick ropes, removing the usual steel wire cables. The correspondent from The London Times reported: ‘What was to be done was to cut the ropes, and allow the lift to fall, so as to ascertain whether, if the steel cables were to give way, the brake would work properly and support the lift…Two carpenters, armed with great hatchets and were ready to cut the (rope) cables on a signal by Mr. Brown.” The hatchets swung and sliced through the ropes; a gasp arose from the crowd as the fifteen ton elevator began to fall. Then, “the lift began to move more slowly, it swayed for a moment…stuck on the brake and stopped.” Otis’ elevator stopped 30 feet from the ground and the crowd cheered and applauded! When these elevators were finally installed working, the Eiffel Tower had 12,000 visitors per day. An incredible number and comparable to the 7,000,000 visitors per year.
Most of the Royal Houses of Europe refused to attend, still smarting from the guillotining of French royal family 100 years before. France invited many smaller countries who set up small vignettes of life in Japan, Egypt, Bali – and they proved among the most popular exhibits of all. It was certainly the forerunner of Disney’s Epcot, with a small train ferrying visitors between the Invalides and the Ecole Militaire. The Fair proved so popular that the Prince of Wales finally attended and met Mr. Eiffel at the top of the Tower.
Thomas Edison attended and was received like royalty. His newest invention, the phonograph machine was one of the most popular exhibits, drawing ten thousand people each day to hear the first recorded music.
In contrast, a group of artists works were virtually ignored. The Impressionists and their works was so marginalized that only through the efforts of Jean Paul Gaugin did any works appear at all, on the walls of a café in the Exhibition Grounds. Vincent Van Gogh hoped to attend and show several paintings, but his mental state was too fragile. The cantankerous James Whistler withdrew his artwork from the American Pavilion because not enough of his paintings were shown, then had to accept a lesser position in the British Pavilion.
But the most popular show of the Exposition was none other than Wild Bill and his Wild West Show, including 100 Sioux Indians just off the reservation and his top star, Annie Oakley. An estimated thirty thousand people attended the show daily at their encampment in Neuilly to see real Indians, cowboys a demonstration of how the West was won with ‘Guillaume Bill’ and, the top draw of all, Ms. Oakley’s amazing shooting skills. Gauguin wrote to a friend: “I was at Buffalo (Bill’s). You absolutely have to come see this. It is hugely interesting.”
The stories and vignettes continue. The final story is how Eiffel’s Tower became a lasting monument of Paris. As 1909 approached it was initially saved thanks to its usefulness for scientific experiments and the invention of the Telegraph. It transmitted the first public radio programme in 1925. Slowly the Eiffel Tower became the symbol for France and nothing better exemplifies it than the story that unfolded in the final days of World War II. On August 25, 1945, a band of men climbed the 1,671 steps to hang the tricolor French flag on the top of the Eiffel Tower for the first time since the War began. ‘…the occupation was over, as every Parisian knew who saw the tricolor snapping that afternoon atop their proud tower.’
At last, the simple beauty of the graceful arches and design made it the icon for the City of Paris.