National Geographic News
Photo of a young roller skater jumping into the air.

A skater soars across the pavement of the Trocadero in Paris, June 1985.

PHOTOGRAPH BY WILLIAM ALBERT ALLARD, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Robert Kunzig

National Geographic

Published April 1, 2014

When you read biographies of Alexandre Gustave Eiffel and his famous tower, which turned 125 yesterday, you're struck at first by a paradox: How did something so daring, so beautiful, so outrageous—in 1889 it outraged many—come to be built by such a colorless little dweeb?

Eiffel himself provided at least part of the answer: His tower, he said, was dictated by the wind.

There was not a drop of romance in the man. Countless newlyweds have made honeymoon memories standing at the top of his 300-meter (1,000-foot) tower, gazing out at the City of Light, and staring into the little office where, in later years, after he'd been forced to stop building things, Eiffel passed the time making meteorological observations.

He himself was luckless in love. After six failed courtships, he finally demanded that his mother find him a suitable bride; by that he meant "a good housekeeper who will not pester me too much, who will cheat on me as little as possible, and who will give me fine healthy children that will in fact be mine." There's plenty of material for a psychiatrist in that statement, especially given the shape of Gustave's masterpiece, but not much romance.

Vintage photo of Eiffel Tower.
The ne plus ultra of Parisian icons is surely the Eiffel Tower, seen here in September 1914.
PHOTOGRAPH BY UNDERWOOD AND UNDERWOOD, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A businessman and an engineer to the marrow, Eiffel had already made his name as a builder of soaring railway bridges and railway stations when the organizers of the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889 came looking for a monument to dominate the Champ de Mars.

An assistant of Eiffel's did a rough sketch—Eiffel was terrible at drawing. The sketch showed a tower that looked pretty much like a pylon on a railway viaduct, or maybe an oil derrick. After that the wind took over.

The goal, specified in Eiffel's contract, was to build the tallest structure ever, at 300 meters (1,000 feet) high. The challenge was to keep the wind from knocking it down. After all, in 1879 a gale had toppled a railway bridge in Scotland, plunging a train and 75 passengers into the Firth of Tay.

Photo of people by a pond near the Eiffel Tower.
With the Eiffel Tower as backdrop, children sail toy boats in a pond in July 1936.
PHOTOGRAPH BY W. ROBERT MOORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Eiffel's solution was twofold. First, the lacy trusswork of his tower would give the wind nothing to push. The Eiffel Tower is, in a manner of speaking, lighter than air: All that wrought iron weighs less than the column of air that surrounds it. And second, the tower's curving, tapering structure would channel the load of the wind and the weight of the tower safely to the ground.

"Before coming together at the high pinnacle," Eiffel wrote, "the uprights appear to burst out of the ground, and in a way to be shaped by the action of the wind."

Photo showing the Eiffel Tower and some kids.
The Eiffel Tower, seen here in December 1946, was completed in 1889 for the Universal Exposition.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MAYNARD OWEN WILLIAMS, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

In other words, the tower's beauty emerged from engineering calculations. It was a new kind of beauty in the world, the forerunner of the modernist dictum that "form follows function," and in 1889, the Paris intelligentsia were scandalized by it.

Guy de Maupassant, the famous short-story writer, later said he'd been forced to leave France, the tower irritated him so much.

Photo of a man with boats on the Seine River near the Eiffel Tower and Pont Grenelle.
The Seine slips beneath the Pont Grenelle near the Eiffel Tower, shown here in July 1936.
PHOTOGRAPH BY W. ROBERT MOORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

In its first decades the tower, which had been built as a temporary feature of the Universal Exposition, only narrowly escaped being demolished. Even today, when you turn a corner in Paris and the tower soars into view, it remains startling—that is, fresh. And Paris is inconceivable without it.

Photo of the Eiffel Tower through the doors of the Trocadero.
The gate of the Trocadero frames the Eiffel Tower in a July 1921 photograph.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KEYSTONE VIEW CO, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Long after the great Gustave died, bored and a little bitter, the architect Le Corbusier paid homage: "I bring to the Tower the testimony of a tireless pilgrim across the world. In the cities, in the savanna, in the pampas, in the desert, on the Ghats and on the estuaries, everywhere, among the humble and among the others, the Tower is in the heart of everyone, symbol of a beloved Paris, beloved symbol of Paris."

17 comments
Irena Pittumbur
Irena Pittumbur

The most beautiful structure in France .I have been going to Paris every year for the last 40 years and I never get tired of seeing it.

Fana Molefe
Fana Molefe

One the Greatest Civil Engineer + Architect of all tymz...*Alexandre Gustave Eiffel i #SALUTE# 

Teresa G
Teresa G

Beautiful structure, and the irony does not diminish its romantic regality. Amazing specimen of engineering! 

Vera Wilson
Vera Wilson

Gorgeous building. 

One of my ancestors apparently walked there for the exhibition with his flock of sheep from Germany, 811 kms and back! He had just left school and took out the flock for grazing every day. One day, both him and the sheep didn't return. Some time later he sent his family a post card, informing them that he just couldn't resist going to the World Exhibition! I've been told, he won the second prize for his sheep. Just shows you: where's a will, there's a way.

Marissa Herrejon-Fagnani
Marissa Herrejon-Fagnani

The most romantic structure of paris....many honeymoons..

Interesting facts : There was not a drop of romance in the Gustave Eiffel. He himself was luckless in love.

He was a builder of railway bridges .

Interesting to know some of hid biography ...
Le Corbusier, the Architect, comment about him here...

Mario Chong
Mario Chong

I only can say love you Paris and God bless France and all the french people.Amen. 04-03-2014.

Roz Perk
Roz Perk

Iconic and beautiful. I fell in love with the Eiffel tower when I was 12 and I still feel the same.

Greg McArthur
Greg McArthur

Proves that engineers have soul and heart. Yes, engineering dictated the form and function (due to wind), but what a triumph of engineering and art! Viva le France, viva Eiffel!!

ARISBE ARELLANO
ARISBE ARELLANO

when I see these pictures I can not imagine those moments when the world expected such a decisive war, I hope that advances are not only structures but in the heart of all living beings, there are no races only hearts

Tom L
Tom L

Absolutely magnificent structure even after 125 years, proof that good design is timeless.  A tip on getting the best view of the tower - go to Palais de Chaillot (Trocadero) which is directly opposite to the tower on the other side of the Seine.  From there, you will get a perfect postcard view of la Tour - and in evenings it is the perfect place to watch the whole structure sparkles in thousands of flashing lights for 10 mins on the hour.  After all, the Eiffel Tower is the no. 1 attraction in Paris, as illustrated in the brilliant infographic below, comparing interesting facts about Paris and London:


http://www.alphaholidaylettings.com/vacation_features/50/infographic_London_vs_Paris_compare_city_breaks_destinations

Kim Jungmin
Kim Jungmin

I was mesmarized at this structure at first glance last year when I visited Paris first. So tall, so impressive than I had thought. Nothing complared to this.

Nic Hilditch
Nic Hilditch

One of the things that really stuck with me about visiting the Eiffel Tower is how you don't quite grasp how tall it is in the same way standing at the top of the Empire state building does. The scale of everything around makes it feel on the one hand taller than it should be, but yet to look at without any other tall buildings for context you just can't imagine it being, in fact, taller than the Chrysler building. Fascinating what context can do to perspective. 


http://www.nichilditch-short.co.uk/

Antoine BOULLE
Antoine BOULLE

Under the second picture, one should read "the nec plus ultra" which means the top choice in latin ...

hi ho
hi ho

yep, a really impressive structure that boggles the mind and even though modern technology have given us such high building such as the world tower still, it is aesthetically nothing compared to the Effiel tower.


BTW, did Msr. Effiel ever find his bride?

Robert Kunzig
Robert Kunzig

@hi ho Yes, in 1862 Eiffel's mother did succeed in finding him a pliant girl named Marguerite Gaudelet, whose dowry of 60,000 francs was acceptable to Eiffel. She bore him five children before dying, apparently of pneumonia, in 1877. It seems to have been a happy marriage. Eiffel never remarried.

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