Today, Eiffel builds two towers. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Alexandre Gustave Eiffel was
born in Dijon in 1832 and trained as an engineer at
the Ecole Centrale de
Paris. He designed bridges and viaducts in his
early life, and he took up architecture later. He
was part of a failed French attempt to build a
Panama canal in 1893. As a very old man, he turned
his ever-adaptable mind to the new technology of
the twentieth century -- to flight. He designed one
of the early wind tunnels.
I'd like you to think about a tower he designed
that's even more familiar than the Eiffel Tower.
But, before I do, let's look at the one that
carries his name. He built the wild, seemingly-mad
Eiffel Tower for the 1889 Paris Exhibition, and it
has marked France to this very day. Who can think
of Paris without seeing that pylon rising from its
center, one fifth of mile into the air?
Paris was horrified when it learned what he was
up to. A group of famous writers and artists wrote
a manifesto against the tower. They said,
We ... protest with all our strength and wrath
... against the erection ... of the monstrous
Eiffel Tower ... This arrogant iron mongery [--
this] disgraceful skeleton ... [E]ven commercial
America wouldn't want it.
That's not so much short sightedness as it is a
reminder that new ideas are alien, no matter how
good they are. Eiffel was soon vindicated. Visitors
to the fair quickly repaid the costs of building
the tower. He was also vindicated in the long run
by all of us who, quite simply, regard the tower as
In 1887, Eiffel wrote about his intentions. He'd
left the steelwork open for the practical purpose
of reducing wind loads on the structure. However,
he absolutely understood the esthetics of what he
was doing. He says,
The curvature of the monument's four outer
edges ... as mathematical calculation dictated it
... will give a great impression of strength and
The remark about "commercial America" in the
artists' manifesto was ironic because, five years
earlier, Eiffel had designed the huge steel tower
inside the Statue of
Liberty. The Eiffel Tower, for all its grace,
did have a hard commercial side. But
Liberty truly symbolized the ideals of
both France and America.
The two structures contrast starkly. Liberty, until
recently, was the largest statue ever made. She
presents a graceful copper shell, but she rides on
Eiffel's vast invisible skeleton. Liberty speaks
explicitly to the French and American love of
freedom. The Eiffel Tower makes no such
iconographic appeal. Its purpose is the structure
itself -- no more than simple beauty in its own
And so Eiffel shifted smoothly between two
radically different esthetic aims. It's wonderful
enough to've stamped two countries with their
identifying monuments. But to've done so in such
completely different ways. Well, that
truly is magical.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Levy, M.P., Structure and Sculpture.
Engineering and Humanities (J.H. Schaub
and S.K. Dickison, eds.). Malabar, FL, R.E. Krieger
Pub. Co., 1987, Section 3.3.
Barr, V., Alexandre Gustave Eiffel: A Towering
Genius. Mechanical Engineering, February
1992, pp. 58-65.
Keim, J. A., La Tour Eiffel. France:
Editions "Tel," 1950.
I am grateful to Jean-Paul Clech for additional
counsel. Mr. Clech has pointed out another
webpage, which gives equations that
might account for the unique shape of the
This is a revised version of Episode 189.
Photo by John Lienhard
Looking down from within the tower, a quarter of
the way up
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.