Eiffel: The Magician of Iron and the World’s Tallest Tower

Eiffel: The Magician of Iron and the World’s Tallest Tower
2023 marks the centennial of the death of Gustave Eiffel. It is impossible to think of Paris without the tower named after him; for almost 130 years the Eiffel Tower has been the global symbol of the city. But Eiffel was far more than the builder of a one-off tower. An innovator in iron construction across the world, he experimented in aerodynamics and pioneered airplane design. Eiffel in 1888, photographed by Félix Nadar. Wikimedia Commons He was born in Dijon in 1832 and studied metallurgy before entering the employ of an engineer-builder called Nepveu. He quickly became Nepveu’s “right hand man” and at the age of 26 was more or less put in charge of building a new bridge over the River Garonne in Bordeaux. Measuring 500 meters, the iron girder bridge was one of the longest in France at the time. Its foundations stand on chambers of compressed air, a technique that Eiffel would specialize in. The Bordeaux bridge, Eiffel’s first major work. Wikimedia Commons The years that followed saw Eiffel start his own business and build up an impressive portfolio of engineering projects, including bridges and even prefabricated churches in South America, the railway station at Pest in Hungary, and the Nice Observatory. He specialized in bridges and viaducts for the rapidly expanding railway network and two of his most ambitious projects were the bridge over the River Douro at Oporto, Portugal, and in 1879 the bridge over the Truyère Gorge at Garabit in the Cantal. They were both arched iron bridges, the Oporto bridge being built without scaffolding. Instead, it extended outwards from the riverbanks and met in the middle. The bridge at Garabit soared over the valley at a height of 122 meters, yet apparently rested on light-as-air lacy pillars; it was a marvel of modern engineering. It was also a trial run for the Eiffel Tower, although Eiffel obviously didn’t know this at the time. The complex calculations needed to ensure each piece was perfectly placed and aligned, and the methods of construction, as well as the team of engineers and technicians, would be used again nearly a decade later. The Budapest Nyugati railway station. Credit: Herbert Ortner / Wikimedia Commons The other “dry run” was the building of the metallic support inside Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty. This gift from France to the United States was going to be over 46 meters tall — how would it avoid collapsing under its own weight? Eiffel called on all his expertise acquired in Portugal and the Cantal and devised a column of four vertical girders held together with diagonal struts and trellis. The copper plates covering it — to minimize corrosion — were suspended so they did not bear their own weight.

Lead photo credit : Eiffel Tower, Paris, France. Credit: Chris Karidis, Unsplash

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Pat Hallam fell in love with Paris when she was an adolescent. After many years of visiting, in 2020 she finally moved from the UK to live here and pursue her passion for the city. A freelance writer and history lover, she can spend hours walking the streets of this wonderful city finding hidden courtyards, bizarre and unusual landmarks and uncovering the centuries of history that exist on every street corner (well, almost). You can find the results of her explorations on Instagram @littleparismoments.