Gustave Eiffel and the Eiffel Tower

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel and his most famous project, the Eiffel Tower. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A master engineer who came to be known as “the magician of iron,” Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel’s reputation was ultimately crowned by the marvelous, latticed Parisian tower that bears his name. But the 300-meter–high sensation has dwarfed a catalog of sensational projects by the Dijon-born visionary.

Early Life and Career

Born in 1832 in Djion, France, Eiffel’s mother owned a prosperous coal business. Two uncles, Jean-Baptiste Mollerat and Michel Perret, were major influences on Eiffel, discussing a wide range of subjects with the boy.

After finishing high school, Eiffel was admitted to a top school, Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in Paris. Eiffel studied chemistry there, but after being graduated in 1855, he took a job with a company that specialized in making railway bridges. 

He was a fast learner. By 1858 he was directing bridge construction. In 1866 he went into business for himself and in 1868 formed a company, Eiffel & Cie. That company installed major bridge, the Ponte Dona Maria, in Porto, Portugal with 525-foot steel arch, and the highest bridge in France, the Garabit Viaduct, before eventually dissolving.

Eiffel’s list of constructions is daunting. He built the Nice Observatory, the Cathedral of San Pedro de Tacna, Peru, theaters, hotels and fountains.     

Among his many great constructions, one project has rivaled the Eiffel Tower in terms of fame and glory: designing the interior frame for the Statue of Liberty.

Eiffel took the design by sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and made it a reality, creating an internal framework around which the  massive statue could be sculpted. It was Eiffel who conceived of the two spiral staircases inside the statue. 

The Eiffel Tower

The Statue of Liberty was finished and opened in in 1886.

The next year work began on Eiffel’s defining piece, a tower for the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris, France, built to honor the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. Construction of the Eiffel Tower, an astounding feat of engineering, took more than two years, but it was worth the wait,. Visitors flocked to the stunning 300 meter-high work — at the time the world’s tallest man-made structure — and made the exhibition one  of the few world's fairs to make a profit. 

The tower was originally supposed to be taken down after the fair, but the powers that be reconsidered. The architectural wonder remains as popular as ever, drawing immense crowds each day.  

Eiffel died in 1923 at the age of 91.