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The story of the Eiffel Tower

The story of the Eiffel Tower

Visiting the Eiffel Tower when one lands in Paris has become a cliché, but you might be amazed when you learn the story behind the iconic monument

The Eiffel Tower stands in the large Champ de Mars park, just to the south of the River Seine in central Paris, overlooking the iconic French capital. Quickly garnering popularity to be a must-visit spot for tourists, the tower is open all year long and never sees a shortage of queues, especially for the second-floor lift to the top.

Of course, there are some who choose to admire the tower’s beauty from afar rather than up close. One such location that has a spectacular view is the Palais de Chaillot across the river.

 

 

The inception

The story of the Eiffel Tower - The Eiffel Tower under constructionCredit: Roger Viollet

All great cities want an icon—a bold and exceptional building or monument that embodies the spirit of the city and captures the imagination of the world. The Eiffel Tower is such a building, an instantly recognisable emblem of Paris, even for people who have never visited the city.

"City authorities wanted to create the world’s tallest structure to celebrate the centenary of the French Revolution"

The concept was bold from the start. The city authorities wanted to create the world’s tallest structure to mark the 1889 Universal Exposition held to celebrate the centenary of the French Revolution. They set the mark at 300m, almost twice the height of the Washington Monument in Washington DC, which held the record at the time, and put the design out to competition. The winning entry among 107 submissions came from Gustave Eiffel (1832–1923), the French engineer already famous for his bridges, domes and viaducts.

Massive triumph

The story of the Eiffel Tower - The Eiffel Tower frames the Champ de Mars and Ecole MilitaireCredit: fstockfoto

No one had built anything quite like this before or on such a scale. In little more than two years, around 100 workmen fixed together the tower’s 18,038 pieces of iron, weighing 7,300 tonnes, using 2.5 million rivets—a breathtaking engineering feat with no other purpose than to create pleasure and astonishment.

The effect has not diminished with time. With its gently tapering curves and ornamental filigree lattice, from a distance, the Eiffel Tower has a remarkable elegance and lightness of touch. It is a shock, therefore, to stand at its base, between the four legs, and see just what an outlandishly colossal structure it is.

Top of the city  

Lifts or stairs (there are 704 steps to the second floor) take visitors to three separate viewing platforms, each with multiple visitor attractions. At 115m above the ground, the second floor already seems dauntingly high; and the fretwork structure, open to the elements, can be unnerving.

"On a clear day, you can see right across Paris and into the surrounding countryside beyond the city"

Yet, it is undeniable that the views over Paris are magnificent—especially from the comfort of the Jules Verne restaurant or the informal buffet. The top floor is nearly two-and-a-half times higher still. On a clear day, you can see for 80km, right across Paris and into the surrounding countryside beyond the city.

Saved for the nation

The Eiffel Tower was not always universally loved by Parisians. It caused a storm of controversy when it was built, with astonishing speed, in 1887–9. Protestors dismissed it as a “black factory chimney” and a “barbarous mass overwhelming and humiliating all our monuments,” but criticism diminished when visitors began to experience the Eiffel Tower first-hand and recognised it as a wonder of the industrial age.

Originally planned as a temporary structure, the Eiffel Tower was scheduled to be dismantled after 20 years, but it was reprieved in the 1890s when it acquired a new purpose. It became a transmission tower in the early days of radio, and also functioned as a weather station. It held the title of the world’s tallest structure until 1930, when it was overtaken by the Chrysler Building in New York.

Since Gustave Eiffel was an authority on the aerodynamics of tall, iron-framed buildings, he calculated the curve of the legs at the base of the tower that would most efficiently resist wind load. In addition, the iron latticework is so minimal that the wind cannot get a grip on the tower. Such was Eiffel’s engineering wizardry that even in strong winds, the tower never sways more than 11cm.

A longstanding icon

The story of the Eiffel Tower - The Eiffel tower at night seen from the Trocadero square in ParisCredit: dennisvdw

Today, the Eiffel Tower is one of the world’s top tourist attractions, with nearly seven million visitors every year. During the winter season, a temporary ice rink is installed on the first floor, while down at ground level the original 1899 lift machinery is open to the public for pre-arranged guided tours.

"Innovative illuminations to mark special events ensure the tower's status as an unparalleled city icon is constantly refreshed"

The tower’s pulsating evening light show—which lasts for five minutes on the hour, every hour until 1am—gives it continuous visibility, while innovative illuminations to mark special events ensure that its status as an unparalleled city icon is constantly refreshed.

City icons

The Statue of Liberty was a gift from France to mark the centenary of the American Declaration of Independence. With an internal structure by Gustave Eiffel, the statue was erected on an island in New York Harbor and inaugurated in 1886. It was the first American landmark encountered by arriving immigrants and became a symbol not just of New York but of the entire USA.

Not only the look, but also the sound of Big Ben in London is familiar the world over. Completed in 1859, the Clock Tower was part of Charles Barry’s rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament following a devastating fire in 1834. The name "Big Ben" actually belongs to the great bell that strikes the hour.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa was designed as a campanile, or freestanding bell tower, for the cathedral of Pisa in Italy. It is an unusual and attractive round tower, built over two centuries to 1372 along the classical lines of ancient Rome. As a result of subsidence, it leans at an angle of about 4°. The tower has now been stabilised, retaining the idiosyncratic lean.

Banner credit: Christian Kruemmel

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