By Gerry Breen
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Eiffel’s amazing tower
By Gerry Breen
Gustave Eiffel’s wrought iron tower, which adorns the Champ de Mars in Paris, was built as the entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair. It was intended to be a temporary structure, but it has become a symbol of France and one of the most recognised constructions in the world. It is reckoned that about 300 million people have visited the tower since it was opened.
When it was first decided to build an iron tower rising to a height of 1,063 feet in Paris, there was uproar. No structure had ever been built to this height, and many people simply believed it was impossible. Well, the doubters were proved wrong. The Eiffel Tower soared into the sky to become the tallest man-made structure in the world. Not only that, but it held this title for more than forty years until the Chrysler Building in New York City was finished in 1930.
Some of France’s leading artists and intellectuals joined forces to object strongly to the structure on artistic grounds. They actually set up a Committee of Three Hundred (one member for each metre of the tower’s height). Amongst the committee members were some of the most prominent figures in the artistic and intellectual life of the French capital, such as Guy de Maupassant, Charles Gounod and Jules Massenet. These writers, painters, sculptors and architects sent a petition called ‘Artists against the Eiffel Tower’ to the Minister of Works and Commissioner for the Exposition. The petition was published on 14th February, 1887. It strongly protested ‘with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection …. of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower.’
The impassioned protests fell on deaf ears. In any event, the construction work had already begun before the petition was published. It took only five months to build the foundations, and another twenty-one months to complete the tower.
Remember, 18,038 metallic parts had to be fitted together with the help of 2,500,000 rivets. All told, 7,300 tons of iron went into the tower and, finally, 60 tons of paint had to be applied to the structure.
With the limited resources available at the time for the construction of such an enormous project, the work was carried out with tremendous speed and efficiency, and when the completed work was seen, many of the protests melted away. Eiffel’s amazing tower was recognised as a masterpiece.
Of course, there were still some who were convinced it was a useless monstrosity with no architectural or artistic merit. It was said that Guy de Maupassant, one of the original protesters, ate lunch in the tower’s restaurant every day because it was the one place in Paris where the tower was not visible.
The main structural work was completed at the end of March, 1889, and on 31st of March, Gustave Eiffel celebrated by leading a group of government officials, accompanied by representatives of the press to the top of the tower. At 2.35 p.m. Eiffel hoisted a large Tricolour to the accompaniment of a 25-gun salute.
The tower was an immediate success. The public were mightily impressed, and in the first week alone, almost 30,000 people climbed to the top. It was illuminated every night by gas lamps and it was the talk not only of the exhibition but of Paris as well. It attracted two million visitors in the course of the World Fair of 1889. Remember, Eiffel’s tower was the same height as an 81-storey building and surpassed the Washington Monument to become the tallest man-made structure in the world.
At the top there was a post office where visitors could send letters and postcards as a memento of their visit. Famous visitors to the tower included the Prince of Wales, Sarah Bernhardt, Thomas Edison and ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, whose Wild West show was an attraction at the exposition.
Over the years, the tower was a silent witness of some remarkable events. On 19th October, 1901, Alberto Santos-Dumont, flying his No. 6 airship, won a 100,000-franc prize offered by Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe for the first person to make a flight from St. Cloud to the Eiffel Tower and back in less than half an hour.
Then, on 4th February, 1912, Austrian tailor Franz Reichel died after jumping from the first level of the tower, a height of 57 metres, to demonstrate his parachute design.
In 1914, at the outbreak of World War 1, a radio transmitter located in the tower jammed German radio communications, seriously disrupting their advance on Paris and contributing to the Allied victory at the First Battle of the Marne.
Strangest of all, was that on two separate occasions in 1925, the con artist Victor Lustig ‘sold’ the tower for scrap metal.
In 1926, pilot Leon Collet was killed trying to fly under the tower. His aircraft became entangled in an aerial belonging to a wireless station.
Nowadays, the Eiffel Tower has become one of the most recognisable structures in the world. It remains a masterpiece of structural art and it is frequently featured in films and literature.