When Gustave Eiffel’s firm built Paris’ most recognizable landmark for the 1889 World’s Fair, many viewed the massive iron structure with skepticism. Today, the Eiffel Tower, which continues to play a prominent role in television and radio broadcasts, is considered an architectural marvel and attracts more visitors than any other paid tourist attraction in the world.
Design and construction of the Eiffel Tower
In 1889, Paris hosted an Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair) to mark the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. More than 100 artists submitted competing plans for a monument to be built on the Champ-de-Mars, located in central Paris, to serve as the entrance to the exhibition. The order was awarded to Eiffel et Compagnie, a consulting and construction company owned by the famous bridge builder, architect and metals expert Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel. While Eiffel himself often gets all the credit for the monument that bears his name, it was one of his employees – a structural engineer named Maurice Koechlin – who dreamed up and refined the concept. Several years earlier, the duo had collaborated on the metal frame of the Statue of Liberty.
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Eiffel reportedly rejected Koechlin’s original plan for the tower, asking him to add more ornate flourishes. The final design required over 18,000 pieces of puddle, a type of wrought iron used in construction, and 2.5 million rivets. Several hundred workers spent two years assembling the framework of the iconic lattice tower, which when it opened in March 1889 stood nearly 1,000 feet tall and was the tallest structure in the world – a distinction which it retained until the Chrysler Building in New York was completed in 1930. (In 1957, an antenna was added which increased the height of the structure by 65 feet, making it taller than the Chrysler Building but not the Empire State Building, which had overtaken its neighbor in 1931.) Initially, only the Eiffel Tower’s second-ground platform was open to the public; later, the three levels, two of which now house restaurants, would be accessible by stairs or one of eight elevators.
Millions of visitors during and after the World’s Fair marveled at the newly erected architectural marvel in Paris. However, not everyone in the city was so enthusiastic: many Parisians feared it was structurally unsound or considered it an eyesore. Novelist Guy de Maupassant, for example, is said to have hated the tower so much that he often lunched in the restaurant at its base, the only vantage point from which he could completely avoid catching sight of its menacing silhouette.
The Eiffel Tower becomes a permanent feature of the Paris skyline
Originally intended as a temporary exhibit, the Eiffel Tower was nearly demolished and scrapped in 1909. City officials chose to save it after recognizing its value as a radiotelegraph station. A few years later, during the First World War, the Eiffel Tower intercepted enemy radio communications, relayed zeppelin alerts and was used to send emergency troop reinforcements. It escaped destruction a second time during World War II: Hitler initially ordered the demolition of the city’s most cherished symbol, but the order was never carried out. Also during the German occupation of Paris, French resistance fighters cut the elevator cables to the Eiffel Tower so the Nazis had to climb the stairs.
Over the years, the Eiffel Tower has been the scene of many high-level stunts, ceremonies and even scientific experiments. In 1911, for example, German physicist Theodor Wulf used an electrometer to detect higher levels of radiation at its top than at its base, observing the effects of what are now called cosmic rays. The Eiffel Tower has also inspired over 30 replicas and similar structures in various cities around the world.
Now one of the most recognizable structures on the planet, the Eiffel Tower underwent a major facelift in 1986 and is repainted every seven years. It receives more visitors than any other paying monument in the world, around 7 million people a year. Some 500 employees are responsible for its day-to-day operations, working in its restaurants, managing its elevators, ensuring its security and directing the eager crowds that flock to the tower’s platforms to enjoy panoramic views of the City of Light.