1832: Gustave Eiffel is born in Dijon, France. His innovative metal-structure design still supports buildings, bridges and even statues.
Eiffel was graduated from the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in 1855. He began his career by supervising railway construction in southwest France. He set himself up as an independent “constructor” in 1866.
To avoid a long, circuitous rail route, Eiffel designed a huge, vaulting bridge across the River Truyère in France’s Massif Central. Completed in 1884, the Garabit viaduct on the rail line from Paris to Marseilles jumps the river on a parabolic arch spanning 530 feet. The truss is ingeniously narrow and deep at the crown to support the tracks, but wide and shallow at the abutments to reduce wind resistance.
Sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi recruited Eiffel to solve the structural problems of building a 151-foot high statue in the middle of windy New York Harbor. Eiffel solved the problem by designing a huge iron skeleton for the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World. Bartholdi’s graceful curves are copper plates attached to Eiffel’s internal framework.
Eiffel’s other engineering works include the Porto viaduct over Portugal’s River Douro, the Pest railway station in Hungary, and the Nice observatory dome and Sioule Bridge in France.
Eiffel began studies for what was to become his most famous work in 1884: a tower more than 300 meters high to commemorate the centennial of the French Revolution. The iron tower that bears his name took more than two years to build and used a variety of new construction techniques.
When the “temporary” Eiffel Tower (.pdf) was completed in time for the 1889 Paris Exposition, it redefined the skyline of Paris. It stood 312 meters high to the tip of its flagpole (now 324 meters, or 1,063 feet, to the top of its antenna). It was the tallest structure in the world until the completion of New York’s Chrysler Building in 1929.
Eiffel was the chief engineer of the locks in the unsuccessful French effort to build the Panama Canal. He also had a financial stake in the Compagnie du Canal, and after it collapsed in a huge financial scandal in 1889, Eiffel was indicted along with Ferdinand de Lesseps. Eiffel was sentenced to two years in prison and fined 2,000 francs. France’s highest appeals court later reversed Eiffel’s conviction and exonerated him of any wrongdoing.
He retired from business, but devoted himself to scientific experiments, including using the Eiffel Tower for meteorological observations and wind-resistance experiments. He also promoted it as an ideal mast for transmitting radio broadcasts, a technology and medium not even invented when the tower was built.
Eiffel died Dec. 27, 1923. He is survived by many structures around the world.
Photo: Gustave Eiffel’s Garabit viaduct still carries rail traffic after 120 years in service.
Courtesy Syndicat Mixte du Lac de Garabit Grandval