An Iron Lady Looks Down on Paris
By Awake! correspondent in France
“BONJOUR, Pierre! Welcome to Paris! I hope you will enjoy your stay. What would you like to see first?”
“The Eiffel Tower!”
“That’s fine. . . . Here we are. Impressed?”
“I certainly am!”
“I’m not surprised. She’s enough to impress anyone! The old lady stands over 1,000 feet (305 m) tall, with her TV-antenna hat on.”
“But what on earth can such a colossal iron structure be used for?”
“That’s a question that calls for a few details. While we’re lining up for our elevator tickets I’ll give you a little background. About a hundred years ago the French authorities decided to organize an international exposition to commemorate the centennial of the French Revolution (1789). The local Paris authorities asked Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, a renowned civil engineer, for a suggestion. Taken by surprise, Eiffel delved into his files and came up with a project that had barely caught his attention until then, namely a 984-foot (300-m) iron tower.
“The Exposition Committee found the project interesting and organized a competition for building projects. All sorts of farfetched ideas were presented, such as a giant guillotine to commemorate the French Revolution. Another proposition was a masonry tower, but estimates and past experience showed that it would be very difficult to make a stone structure any higher than the 555-foot (169-m) Washington Monument that the United States had struggled to complete a few years earlier. Finally it was Eiffel’s project that was selected. But, curiously, the initial concept of the tower that made him world famous was not his own.”
“Do you mean that Eiffel didn’t design his tower?”
“That’s right. Although he built it, the tower was first designed by two of his associate workers, Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier. It might be well to specify, however, that the feat of completing the tower in two years was only possible because Eiffel’s construction methods were applied, and that’s one reason why his project was chosen by the Exposition Committee.”
“Was Eiffel well known even before building his tower?”
“Indeed. He had become famous for his huge ironwork bridges, such as the Maria Pia Bridge over the Douro River at Oporto, Portugal. He had also completed the Garabit railroad viaduct in south central France, making it the highest arched bridge of the day, towering 400 feet (122 m) above the water. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that he had also played a major role in building the supporting iron framework for another world-famous monument, the Statue of Liberty.
“For all Eiffel’s structures, wind was the major problem. In building the Eiffel Tower, he resorted to his usual method, working with a network of relatively thin girders.”
“Are you sure there is no danger when there is a gale?” ventured Pierre apprehensively.
“Don’t worry! The huge latticed iron tower is not affected much by the wind. Even in gales of over 110 miles an hour (180 km/hr)—the strongest so far recorded in Paris—the tower sways only 4.7 inches (12 cm). Actually, it is more affected by the sun. The side exposed to the sun’s heat expands slightly, causing the top to move as much as 7 inches (18 cm).
“Yet, the tower is relatively lightweight. It weighed a little less than 7,700 tons (7,000 metric tons) at birth! To illustrate, a scale model measuring 12 inches (30 cm) high would weigh only a quarter of an ounce (7 g)! In fact, relatively speaking, the pressure exerted per square inch at each of its four foundations does not exceed that exerted by the legs of a chair occupied by an average man.
“In order to complete this tower in the allotted time, Eiffel made extensive use of prefabricated parts. Rivet holes were prebored at precisely the right spots, and two thirds of the 2,500,000 rivets were also fixed in advance. No prefabricated girder weighed more than three tons, making the work of hoisting the iron pieces into position much easier. Tall cranes were used to start with, and when the structure outgrew them, Eiffel’s ingenious mobile cranes took over. These moved up the ‘rails’ later to be used by the elevators. Such smooth-running operations contributed to safety, which was one of Eiffel’s major concerns. No fatal accident occurred during the entire construction period, a truly remarkable feat for back then—and even today!”
“But how did they manage to put it all up?”
“Well, let’s start at the bottom! Due to the proximity of the Seine River, Eiffel resorted to the method he had introduced for bridge building. Each of the 16 foundation caissons had a work chamber that kept water out by the use of compressed air. Thus workers were able to excavate and evacuate rubble and earth without being hampered by water seepage.
“Neither Eiffel nor his men were worried about the height of the tower, for they were used to hazardous working conditions. Paradoxically, one of the most critical problems for Eiffel was the first platform. Massive wooden scaffolding was used to support the four leaning piers and the huge girders of the first platform. The top of the four piers rested on sand-filled metal cylinders. By letting the sand out gradually, the piers could be lowered into position. Additional hydraulic jacks in the pier foundations allowed for the final adjusting of the four columns, thus aligning them with the iron frame of the first platform.
“Once this platform was perfectly horizontal, it was securely fixed to the piers, and the jacks were removed. Building work could then be resumed on the tower itself. Slowly but surely the work progressed, compelling an expression of admiration and astonishment by the Parisians observing the tower move skyward. Thus, on March 31, 1889, less than 26 months after excavation had started, Eiffel was able to invite a few of the more athletic dignitaries up the 1,710 steps to what he termed an ‘informal work-site fête’ to inaugurate the tower. But don’t worry, Pierre, we are going up by elevator!”
“Look. Here it comes! Are we going straight to the top?” asks Pierre excitedly.
“No, we have to change elevators on the second platform. Actually, even the second elevator does not go quite to the top, but we will be over 900 feet (275 m) up, and the view is magnificent. On a clear day, visibility may reach up to 40 miles (65 km). As you can see, on the first elevator we will be traveling up in the iron columns. This presented quite a problem, for it required a system that would allow for the elevator to negotiate the bend between first and second platforms. Only one firm, Otis, managed to solve the problem and was consequently chosen to make that elevator.
“Recently, the old hydraulic elevator was replaced by four modern electric elevators. Thus technology came to the rescue again, as it had done long ago; otherwise the iron lady’s graceful silhouette would now be sadly lacking on the Paris skyline.”
“What exactly do you mean?”
“I’ll explain. The original contract signed with Eiffel stipulated that the tower should be dismantled after 20 years. But in 1903 General Ferrié, a pioneer in wireless telegraphy, used it for his experiments. So the tower was retained for military purposes. In 1921 the first live radio broadcast came over the air transmitted from the Eiffel Tower. From 1922 on, regular programs were broadcast from Radio Tour-Eiffel. The tower has also been serving as a television mast for nearly 30 years and, with the antenna, it now measures 1,052 feet 4 inches (320.75 m). For over 40 years the Eiffel Tower was the world’s tallest man-made structure, until New York’s Chrysler Building surpassed it in 1930.”
“I wonder what the Parisians themselves think about the Eiffel Tower.”
“Opinions have differed over the years, varying from love to hate. As far back as 1887, a group of well-known writers such as Alexandre Dumas (son) and Guy de Maupassant, and composer Charles Gounod, signed a protest letter condemning what they called the ‘utterly ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic factory chimney.’ They added: ‘For twenty years we will have the sight of the odious shadow of the hateful column of iron and bolts extending like an ink blot over the entire city.’
“But such feelings have calmed down by now, and Parisians today accept the Eiffel Tower as a part of the Paris landscape. The iron lady has withstood the test of time, thanks also to the 57 tons of paint used for her facelift every seven years. In 1989 she will be celebrating her centennial.
“True, not everyone visualizes the Eiffel Tower as the poet did, who compared her to a ‘shepherdess’ amidst her ‘flock of [Paris] bridges.’ Nevertheless, just like you, Pierre, tourists from all over the world do literally ‘flock’ to see her—over three million people a year! Some go up for the view. Others are interested in buying souvenirs from the various shops, or they just want to send a postcard from the special post office on the first platform. Still others linger to enjoy a typical French meal in one of the restaurants on the first or second platform.”
“Thank you for the tour and for all those details. When I see my friends again, I’ll certainly tell them that I met a grand old lady nearly one hundred years old, still steady on her legs as she looks down on Paris.”
[Blurb on page 14]
Eiffel invited a few of the more athletic dignitaries up the 1,710 steps to inaugurate the tower
[Blurb on page 15]
The original contract stipulated that the tower be dismantled after 20 years
[Picture on page 13]
The latticed ironwork makes the tower light for its size