Today, Gustave Eiffel gives inventive minds a lift.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Eiffel opened his famous
Tower at the 1889 Paris Exhibition. While he was
building it, inventors were trying to give birth to
the electric elevator. Ten years later he probably
would have used an electric elevator, but for now
he had a problem. And solving it created a great
Carrying people a thousand feet into the sky was
daunting enough, but Eiffel's worst problem was at
the base of the Tower. The four legs spread out,
leaving a great open archway through the base. The
arch was well over a hundred feet high and more
than 200 feet across. An elevator shaft in the
middle of that lovely arcade was unthinkable.
Hydraulic-drive cable elevators were well known.
They'd never been used on such a scale, but there
was no reason not to use them. Eiffel hired a
French firm to build one for the 550-foot run from
the second landing to the top of the Tower -- one
that began 380 feet above the ground. He had a much
harder time finding someone to fit an elevator into
the curved lower legs of the Tower.
Eiffel finally rejected a wild English screw-driven
system and turned to the American Elisha Otis. Otis
was ready for him. He was sure no one else could do
the job, so he had simply designed a system and
then sat back to wait for Eiffel's call.
Otis made two huge hydraulic cable elevators for
two opposing legs. They were half elevator, half
inclined railroad -- very big and very complicated.
They were also beautiful machines that drew crowds
at the Exhibition.
French nationalism demanded that French elevators
be put into the other two legs. Someone came up
with a clumsy, but wildly inventive, chain-drive
elevator that went only to the first platform.
Later Eiffel muttered that its only merit was
looking safe enough to satisfy bureaucrats. Those
French elevators were the first to be replaced
after the Exhibition.
The Otis elevators were avant-garde technology. But
before WW-I they also gave way to simpler systems.
The surprise was the French elevator in the upper
part of the Tower. Once the longest elevator run
ever built, it'd gone in with little fuss. It
would've been replaced with an electric elevator
when cold weather kept freezing its hydraulic
drive; but someone added antifreeze, and it kept
running for a century.
The rising Eiffel Tower clearly heralded a new age
in high-rise thinking, and it drew in ideas. Some
died on the drawing board. Some survived. But
inventors knew that when the Tower was finished,
buildings would never be quite the same again.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds