Eiffel tower

From “horror” to icon: a brief history of the Eiffel Tower in Paris

On March 31, 1889, after two years, two months and five days of construction, the world welcomed the newest addition to the Paris skyline: the Eiffel Tower. Its creator, Gustave Eiffel, deploys the Habs on the third level, signaling that the wrought iron building is now open. Lit by 10,000 gas lamps, it was a spectacle without precedent in the world; it is now one of the most visited monuments in the world, welcoming nearly seven million people each year.

Out of 107 proposed projects, the Eiffel Tower was chosen to represent the Universal Exhibition of 1889 (the Universal Exhibition) and to commemorate the centenary of the French Revolution. The fair was to be a showcase of technology and innovation, and it was suggested that a sufficiently impressive structure be built to demonstrate French technological prowess – and, by virtue of its position on the Champ de Mars, serve as entrance door to the exhibition.

DID YOU KNOW? During the Nazi occupation of France, Adolf Hitler called for the demolition of the Eiffel Tower. Luckily for his fans, the order was not fulfilled.

Who designed the Eiffel Tower?

The tower was designed by entrepreneur Gustave Eiffel, architect Stephen Sauvestre and engineers Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier. Eiffel’s reputation preceded him – he owned a metalworking business and was the genius behind the metal framework of New York’s Statue of Liberty, built three years earlier.

The tower, pictured here c1888, was the brainchild of entrepreneur Gustave Eiffel. (Image by Getty Images)

The construction of the Eiffel Tower required 7,300 tons of iron, the sweat of more than 300 workers and a fleet of steam cranes and hydraulic jacks to maneuver the giant beams. Work began in January 1887 and was completed relatively quickly, in just 796 days, a feat that heralded French industrial achievement as much as the completed tower itself. At 300m tall, it immediately entered the record books as the tallest structure in the world, a position it held until the inauguration of the Chrysler Building in New York in 1930.

Construction of the Eiffel Tower

At 300 meters, the Eiffel Tower immediately entered the record books as the tallest structure in the world. (Image by Getty Images)

At the foot of the Eiffel Tower were four wooden pavilions, which housed restaurants to serve visitors to the exhibition, each of which could accommodate 500 people. They were probably very busy, as the Tower received 1,953,122 visitors during the nearly six months of the World’s Fair that year.

Crowd at the Eiffel Tower in 1899

The Tower received almost 2 million visitors in the nearly six months of the World’s Fair that year. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Pix Inc./The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

What were the first reactions to the Eiffel Tower?

Not everyone was so welcoming of the new structure – many Parisians thought the tower was an eyesore that clashed with the older, grander architecture of the French capital. The novelist Guy de Maupassant often ate in one of the restaurants at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, because it was the only place where he could do so without having to look at it. Along with other Parisian artists and authors, de Maupassant wrote a letter to the city government protesting the construction. Some also worried about the safety of those who had to climb its heights.

Many Parisians thought the Eiffel Tower was an eyesore

But the tower has become much more than a tourist attraction, also serving as a proving ground for serious scientific experiments that have proven its wider worth. Gustave Eiffel installed a laboratory within the structure and invited scientists to use it: a version of Foucault’s pendulum was installed to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth, and a wind tunnel was also built next to it. The structure became an astronomical observation point, as well as a beacon and communication post. To symbolically ensure the Tower’s place in the history of science, Eiffel had the names of 72 scientists, mathematicians and engineers engraved in the arches of the Tower during construction.

Maintenance workers balancing on the Eiffel Tower

Maintenance workers balance high on the Eiffel Tower to change the light bulbs that illuminate it at night, c1937. (Photo by Horace Abrahams/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Initial plans for the Eiffel Tower said it was only meant to last 20 years, but in 1909 it was given the green light to stay. Over the next two decades, it proved essential for sending wireless telegraph messages around the world. During World War I, the tower’s radiotelegraph transmitter was used to intercept enemy communications and even helped uncover double agent Mata Hari.

Such longevity, however, comes at a price. The Eiffel Tower (and the 2.5 million rivets that hold it together) has to be repainted every seven years – by hand – and although the 10,000 gas lamps are long gone, 20,000 golden bulbs light it from now on.

The construction of the Eiffel Tower is explored in an episode of Witness to history on the BBC World Service.

This content first appeared in the March 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed