Built for the 1889 World’s Fair, the history of the tower summarizes the assets and know-how that Gustave Eiffel acquired during his long career. He came from an entrepreneurial family – his mother got rich in the coal trade, his uncle owned a chemical factory – and he fed on this culture, entering the Secondary School of Arts and Crafts, from which he graduated as an engineer at the age of 23. in 1855.
The following year, thanks to his mother’s business connection, he joined a firm for the construction of railway equipment, which was soon bought by a larger one, where Eiffel found himself head of construction studies. This is how he managed the construction of the 500 meter long railway bridge in Bordeaux, over the Garonne. It uses the technique of building foundations on boxes driven into the ground using compressed air, which is particularly useful in aquatic environments. This technique will also be used for the foundations of the four legs of the tower.
Eiffel therefore became a specialist in railway bridges with metal architecture: in the service of the Compagnie des chemins de fer du Midi, the Compagnie d’Orléans then built several in the southwest. On this occasion he befriended Jean-Baptiste Krantz, an engineer with the Compagnie d’Orléans. He also built the hall of the station in Toulouse.
Building on his experience, Eiffel established himself as a consulting engineer in 1864, paying special attention to the World Exhibition planned for 1867. Thanks to his connections with Krantz, who had just been appointed director of works for the exhibition, he won the contract for the metalwork of the Beaux-Arts Gallery, which led to the founding of his own company at the age of 34 in 1866 and the establishment of his workshops in Levallois-Perret, a western suburb of Paris, on the banks of the Seine, financially assisted by his family and in-laws (his mother married him in 1862 to the daughter of industrialists).
Eiffel understood well what the World’s Fairs could offer in terms of advertising: after the 1867 Exposition, he procured the construction of the Grand Reception Hall, the Pavilion of the City of Paris, and the Paris Gas Pavilion for the 1878 Paris Exposition. company. And it was the World Exhibition in 1889 that wrote it down in history.
But let’s go back to his entrepreneurial beginnings, marked in 1867 by two contracts for viaducts on the Sioula, won under the noses of giants of the industry such as Cail, Goüin and Schneider. Success achieved thanks to his relationships at Compagnie d’Orléans and his innovative project in construction methods: the bridge deck is first built on the shore before being lowered by a smart system on the bridge piers, which saves time and money.
Eiffel reuses such prefabrication processes several times. In the 1870s and 1880s, many small, economical “portable bridges” were supplied to colonies and poor countries, sold individually with assembly instructions and ready to assemble “with less than twelve men”: in Indochina, in Bolivia , in the Netherlands East Indies. An extremely lucrative invention for the company. Because Eiffel is also attentive to the financial aspects and the profit he can get from his work.
Eiffel built an international reputation with the bridge over the Douro River in Porto, cheaper than its competitors thanks to a smart system
From 1868, he collaborates with a young engineer who graduated from the same high school as him, Théophile Seyrig, who brought 126,000 francs of the 200,000 francs of capital of the new company Gustave Eiffel and company. Under the contract, Seyrig will receive 38% of the profits, but will have no management authority in the company.
There is something for everyone and Seyrig’s skills are used to design, from 1869 to 1873, numerous works in South America, then the Budapest railway station in 1875-1877. But the work that further cemented his international reputation was the bridge over the Douro River in Porto, Portugal, built between 1875 and 1877.
The project of the Eiffel company, designed by Seyrig, won the international competition announced by the Portuguese railways: it is cheaper than the others, mainly thanks to the system of steel cables, which preserve as its structure the arch intended to support the deck. , without having to resort to scaffolding.
Since then, Eiffel has built numerous works in the Iberian Peninsula, in Romania, in Hungary and, of course, in France: the most famous of his bridges, the Garabit viaduct, in Cantal, inspired by the model of the bridge over the Douro. Completed in 1884, it is the work of a new team, the same team that will design and build the tower.
Wow, an amazing feat of engineering
Since the announcement of the World Exhibition in Paris in 1885 for the centenary of the revolution, the idea of building a large tower has been hanging around. Many projects are in progress, but the Eiffel Tower, a tower of metal lattices, is the only one that responds – strangely, say its opponents – to the government decree of May 1886 regulating the conditions of the competition with the aim of the Exhibition: in its article 9, it states that “competitors must study the possibility of building an iron tower on the Champ-de-Mars with a square base, 125 m side at the base and 300 m high”.
In January 1887, an agreement was signed between Eiffel, the state and the city of Paris, granting him a twenty-year operating concession and a subsidy of 1.5 million francs in his own name. With its 18,000 parts assembled using 2.5 million rivets, the tower, built in less than twenty-six months (between 28 January 1887 and 30 March 1889), is an amazing technical tour de force assembled on site by a team of 250 workers.
To avoid the destruction of the tower, Eiffel embarks on a second career: that of a scientist
The parts are designed and manufactured, then pre-assembled in the Levallois factory and then transported in elements several meters long across the Seine: 40 engineers and designers and 150 workers work here. If a defect is found on site, the part is immediately returned by ship to the factory. The total construction cost will be around 8 million, but the cost will be amortized within a few months just for the duration of the exhibition, thanks to the popular success. From then on, the operation of the tower will be a very profitable business.
Eiffel’s career also experienced setbacks. The most famous is his involvement in the Panama scandal. He agreed to supply ten locks for a total of 125 million, more than fifteen times the price of the tower. Eiffel included in the contract the payment of a colossal profit from the start of work. However, the Canal Company lacked funds and was placed into liquidation on 4 February 1889: the collapse of the small savers caused a scandal and brought the company and Eiffel himself to court.
Eiffel will therefore embark on a second path until the end of his life: the path of a scholar. Not wanting the tower to suffer the fate of so many exhibition buildings slated for demolition, he gave it a scientific use for astronomical, physical, chemical and meteorological observations. During his long career, Eiffel was first an engineer and business manager, graduated from a distinguished school: the dominant model at the head of the main French industrial companies until the 1970s.