A History of the Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower. Cavan Images/The Image Bank/Getty Images

The Eiffel Tower is the most visually famous structure in France, perhaps in Europe, and has seen over 200 million visitors. Yet it wasn’t supposed to be permanent and the fact it still stands is down to a willingness to accept new technology which was how the thing came to be built in the first place.

Origins of the Eiffel Tower

In 1889 France held the Universal Exhibition, a celebration of modern achievement timed to coincide with the first centenary of the French Revolution.

The French government held a competition to design an “iron tower” to be erected at the entrance to the exhibition on the Champ-de-Mars, partly to create an impressive experience for visitors. One hundred and seven plans were submitted, and the winner was one by engineer and entrepreneur Gustav Eiffel, aided by architect Stephen Sauvestre and engineers Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier. They won because they were willing to innovate and create a true statement of intent for France.

The Eiffel Tower

Eiffel’s tower was to be unlike anything yet built: 300 metres tall, at that time the highest man made structure on earth, and built of a latticework of wrought iron, a material whose large scale production is now synonymous with the industrial revolution. But the design and nature of the material, making use of metal arches and trusses, meant the tower could be light and “see through”, rather than a solid block, and retain still its strength.

Its construction, which began on January 26th 1887, was swift, relatively cheap and achieved with a small workforce. There were 18,038 pieces and over two million rivets.

The Tower is based on four large pillars, which form a square 125 meters along each side, before rising up and joining into a central tower.

The curving nature of the pillars meant the elevators, which were themselves a relatively recent invention, had to be carefully designed. There are viewing platforms at several levels, and people can travel to the top. Parts of the great curves are actually purely aesthetic. The structure is painted (and re-painted regularly).

Opposition and Skepticism

The Tower is now considered a historical milestone in design and construction, a masterpiece for its day, the start of a new revolution in building. At the time, however, there was opposition, not least from people horrified at the aesthetic implications of such a large structure on the Champ-de-Mars. On February 14th 1887, while construction was ongoing, a statement of complaint was issued by “personalities from the world of arts and letters”. Other people were skeptical that the project would work: this was a new approach, and that always brings problems. Eiffel had to fight his corner, but was successful and the tower went ahead. Everything would rest on whether the structure actually worked...

Opening of the Eiffel Tower

On March 31st 1889 Eiffel climbed to the top of the tower and hoisted a French flag at the top, opening the structure; various notables followed him up.

It remained the highest building in the world until the Chrysler building was finished in New York in 1929, and is still the tallest structure in Paris. The building and planning was a success, with the tower impressing.

Lasting Impact

The Eiffel Tower was originally designed to stand for twenty years, but has lasted over a century, thanks partly to Eiffel’s willingness to use the tower in experiments and innovations in wireless telegraphy, allowing the mounting of antennas. Indeed, the Tower was at one point due to be torn down, but remained after it began broadcasting signals. In 2005 this tradition was continued when Paris’ first digital television signals were broadcast from the Tower. However, since its construction the Tower has achieved a lasting cultural impact, first as a symbol of modernity and innovation, then as of Paris and France.

Media of all sorts has used the Tower. It's almost inconceivable that anyone would try to knock down the tower now, as its one of the most famous structures in the world and an easy marker for films and television to use.

The Official Site of the Eiffel Tower