On November 8, 1884, France’s President Grevy signed a decree that “a Universal Exposition of Products of Industry shall be opened in Paris May 5, 1889.”
The last decade had seen a flourishing of trade, a vigorous expansion of industry, and rapid increases in national income. The country had salved the wounds of the Franco-Prussian War and had made an energetic comeback, expanding her colonial interests in Indochina and North and Central Africa.
Thus a spirit of idealism and national pride underlay the President’s decision for a world’s fair, and the new Minister of Commerce and Industry, Edouard Lockroy, contributed unflagging support. Lockroy obtained a budget of $8.6 million for the exposition and enthusiastically urged the creation of a 1,000-foot tower, in the proud tradition of the pyramids and Gothic cathedrals, a symbol of France’s rising powers and industrial promise, as well as man’s potential to climb heavenward.
In 1886 Lockroy invited architects and engineers to submit plans for a tower or, if they wished, some other monumental structure.
Among the 100 proposals received was one calling for a tower in the form of an enormous sprinkler that might rescue Paris in times of drought; another described a guillotine-shaped structure to glorify the Revolution, casting its morbid shadow over designs of despotism and oppression. But the winner had a plan very similar to the image Lockroy had been nurturing, and the credentials of the contestant who submitted it were impeccable.
Gustave Eiffel, a graduate of the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures, was a prestigious builder in metal, noted particularly for his successful railway bridges. Earlier, as a modest young man of 22, Eiffel had planned to work at his uncle’s vinegar distillery in Dijon until a family quarrel fortuitously disrupted his plans and set his sights in another direction.
Eiffel landed in a Paris construction firm specializing in railway equipment, where years of experience eventually allowed him to open his own metalworking shops, obtaining contracts nationally and abroad for train stations, exhibition halls, and railway bridges.
In 1886 Eiffel submitted a detailed plan for an immense 1,000-foot tower of wrought iron, a rigid but relatively light material, to be built on the Champ de Mars on a budget of $1.6 million. He cannot be given credit for the design, however, which was conceived by his chief of research, Maurice Koechlin, aided by Emile Nouguier and architect Stephen Sauvestre. The elegant tower, with its in-curving edges and stupendous height, fit the judges’ bill as “an original masterpiece of the metals industry” and on January 8, 1887, the contract was signed, giving Eiffel a mere two years to fulfill the task.
Not all of Paris supported the glorious monument to an age of science and industry. Writers, painters, and sculptors collaborated in righteous protestation against “the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower, which the public has scornfully and rightfully dubbed the Tower of Babel.”
The plaints proved futile and construction began. First came extensive investigation of the land on which the tower would stand. Paris lies on a deep layer of plastic, gray clay that could well support the foundations; however, near the Seine, where two of the tower’s legs would rest, was a 20-foot-thick bed of unstable sand and gravel. Eiffel used pneumatic caissons to dig to a depth of 53 feet before he at last reached firm clay. The piers of the north and west supports would therefore have to be dug 16 feet deeper than those at the south and east.
The laying of the foundation alone was a massive undertaking, requiring five months and the use of 16 large iron caissons with sharp cutting edges along the bottom. With four caissons for each pier, workers removed 40,500 cubic yards of earth through airtight hatches and successfully prevented water seepage. The caissons were illuminated with electric lights, a novel luxury at the time, and unlike Washington Augustus Roebling and his workers at the Brooklyn Bridge, no one suffered from the bends during the digging.
The sturdy foundation in which each pier was set comprised 20 feet of cement, huge blocks of limestone from central France, and two layers of hard stone from Château-Landon. In each the workers set two anchor bolts 26 feet long and 4 inches in diameter, and attached a cylindrical iron shoe. A column, in turn, was bolted to each shoe.
According to Joseph Harriss in his thorough book about the tower, the pressure from the columns was to be 10.2 pounds per square inch, while the foundations could accommodate over 400 pounds per square inch. The most ingenious element was Eiffel’s placement of a hydraulic jack containing a piston operated by water pressure in each cylindrical shoe: when the piers rose to the point where they were connected by a horizontal platform, they could be raised or lowered minute amounts to assure that the platform was perfectly level.
Next, horse-drawn drays began to arrive at the construction site bearing wrought-iron pieces from Eiffel’s shop three miles away. There, 30 draftsman had made 5,329 mechanical drawings for 18,038 separate pieces, and now the shops were pumping out 400 tons of girders and trusses each month. To facilitate handling, individual pieces were kept small, weighing no more than three tons each. Workers used steam-powered cranes to fix the pieces, and when these could no longer reach, a fantastic system of “creeper cranes” was developed. These nimble 13-ton machines, which could pivot 360°, were placed on inclined tracks, where the elevators would later run up the piers, and skillfully operated from the ground.
The four piers would not be joined until they reached a height of 180 feet, but due to their inclination at an angle of 54°, Eiffel calculated they would collapse when only half that tall. Thus, at 90 feet a temporary bracing of 12 wood pylons topped with platforms had to be erected.
On these Eiffel constructed another system of hydraulic jacks. The columns leaned against metal cylinders filled with sand and each equipped with a plug and piston. If a column needed to be lowered, the plug was removed and the requisite amount of sand allowed to drain out until the correct position was attained. Raising the column could be achieved by the action of the piston. A further support system was erected above the pylons: at a height of 150 feet, four 80-foot long platforms spanned the sides of the tower and were joined to resist the inward pressure of the piers.
Between July and October 1887, the tower climbed to 92 feet, continuing upward with incredible speed, largely due to the technique of prefabrication. Girders and trusses were already shaped and drilled so that on-site workers could simply set them in place and drive in the rivets—an average of 1,650 per day.
As one newspaper reported at the time:
250 workmen came and went in a perfectly orderly way, carrying long beams on their shoulders, climbing up and down through the lattice ironwork with surprising agility. The rapid hammer blows of the riveters could be heard, and they worked with fire that burned with the clear trembling flame of will-o’-the-wisp. The four cranes—one for each pillar—which brought up the pieces for this vast metallic framework one by one, stood against the sky with their great arms at the four corners of this lofty sight. During short winter days, when night falls the twenty rivet forges blaze in the high wind, casting a sinister glow over this tangle of girders until it acquires a fantastic aspect. The men work as late as possible and move about like shadows between these dark red smoky fires.
The workers were not always so orderly, in fact. Wages ranged from 8 cents to 14 cents an hour; many workers demanded more as the tower grew and became more dangerous, and as winter days shortened their hours. Two strikes occurred, the first on September 19, 1888, when workers demanded an immediate 4cent-per-hour raise. Eiffel resolved the matter with a graduated raise of 1 cent per hour each month, up to a maximum raise of 4 cents an hour. When workers again put down their tools in December, Eiffel had less patience and fired anyone who failed to work. Few persisted in the strike, and the names of 199 loyal workers were immortalized on a prominent girder.
At a height of 180 feet came one of the most telling and delicate maneuvers of the entire construction. Here the four piers were joined by a 25-foot-deep iron belt. Its component parts were raised by crane to the top of the scaffolding platforms, riveted together, and carefully slid into place. It was at this point that the workers manned the various hydraulic jacks, adjusting to the finest degree the gigantic 440-ton piers. Measurements had been taken throughout construction with steel wires, and Eiffel had been careful to make the columns, if anything, too vertical so that in the fine tuning they could be lowered rather than raised. His meticulous plans paid off: in March 1888 the first platform found its place, rivet holes perfectly aligned, each pier secured with iron wedges.
Tracks were laid around this platform, along which little wagons carried material from a central crane to four creeper cranes. Eiffel installed a canteen up there to save his workers the trouble of coming down for lunch—and to monitor their alcohol intake.
The second platform, at a height of 380 feet, was completed in July and fireworks were launched from it on the 14th. Just above this platform the piers converged into a single spire. Here a new system of counterbalancing cranes was employed. They ran up and down an auxiliary iron frame 30 feet high, on top of which yet another frame was mounted. With four hoisting systems operating at once, workers could get a large girder from the ground to the top and in place in a mere 20 minutes.
As the tower rose to completion Eiffel turned to the complex problem of elevators, in itself a lengthy story. Suffice it to say that because aesthetics prevented the installment of a single vertical shaft, which would have cluttered the lovely open arches of the tower, Eiffel ended up with three different elevator systems installed by three different companies. Two French firms contracted for the runs from the ground to platform 1 and from platform 2 straight up to the top. But no Frenchman dared undertake the tricky stretch between platform 1 and platform 2, where the angle of inclination shifted from 54° to 78°; this left Eiffel in a bind, for his contract prohibited the use of foreign equipment.
In the end he had no choice and contracted with the American Elevator Company, a branch of Otis, for two elevators: one from the ground to platform 2, stopping at platform 1 on the north pier; and one from platform 1 to 2 on the south pier. Otis’s novel hydraulic rope-geared system was initially met with suspicion and trepidation by the Europeans, but in the end they were duly impressed. The Otis elevators carried 40 passengers 400 feet per minute, while the far noisier French “direct plunger” system (in which a piston pushed the car along hundreds of links in a chain) from the ground to platform 1 moved half as fast but accommodated 100 people. All the elevators were powered by water from the Seine, stored in reservoirs on the first and second platforms. One could make the entire trip to the top in seven minutes.
Nothing warms a Frenchman’s heart like sitting down to a fine meal, so the decision about what would draw crowds to the magnificent tower was probably not a difficult one. Four restaurants opened on the first platform, including a branch of the Parisian restaurant Brebant in Louis XV decor; one could sample Anglo-American cuisine or Russian or that of Alsace-Lorraine.
Platform 2 featured a printing press that issued Le Figaro with daily reports of exposition activities, plus a little refreshment in the way of drinks and pastry. The third platform, at the dizzying height of 905 feet, was enclosed in glass to protect visitors from the wind. And just above it was an apartment for Eiffel, for scientific experiments and astronomical and meteorological observations. The top was crowned with eight lightning rods and a powerful light that beamed 120 miles, flashing blue, white, and red. Finally, the tower was bathed in Barbados bronze, a reddish-brown paint shaded deeper near the bottom, turning gradually to gold and pale yellow as the tower rose.
Upon completion the tower was the highest structure ever made by man, standing 985 feet, 11 inches, weighing 9,441 tons, standing on a base area of 2.54 acres. Eiffel not only completed construction over a month before the exposition opened, he also succeeded in staying within his budget. Nearly 2 million visitors celebrated the exposition and the tower was toasted with speeches and tears of national pride, while Eiffel was made an officer in the Legion of Honor.
Nonetheless, one spurious story circulated that Guy de Maupassant religiously lunched on the tower’s second platform because it was the only place in Paris where he could not see the tower itself displaying its scar on the city’s horizon.