Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 765:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 765.

Today, Gustave Eiffel builds much more than a tower. 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.

It was 1857. Eiffel was only 25. He'd just been given his first big job. It was a cast-iron railway bridge, a third of a mile long. And so began one of the great engineering careers.

Writer Vilma Barr tells how young Eiffel left his father's vinegar distillery in Dijon's mustard & vinegar region. He went off to study chemical engineering. He meant to come back and make better vinegar. Then a family squabble ended that hope.

So Eiffel went to work for a railway company. By 1867 he'd already created a rich legacy of iron-work. Then he set up his own structural design business, and the real fun began.

He built a half-mile bridge in Portugal and the railway station in Budapest -- a bridge in China, an observatory in Nice. He built prefab iron bridges and churches. One of the churches is still used in Mexico. He built the Statue of Liberty's skeleton.

Then, in 1889, he finished his Tower. It made us forget all else he did. Still, he wasn't done yet.

In 1903, just before the Wright Brothers flew, a much older Eiffel set up a lab on the second platform of the Tower. Now he was turning his attention to flight. He measured wind resistance by dropping airfoils and measuring their rate of fall. The Eiffel Tower had become an early wind tunnel.

A year later he made the Tower into the first great radio transmitter. By the age of 66 he'd created his own radio network. With it, he reached Berlin, North Africa, and finally America.

But it's the Tower we remember. I've always been struck that real beauty has to evoke its complement -- which is ugliness. True beauty harbors defiance. It pre-empts expectation.

The artistic community shrieked its horror as Eiffel's monstrosity rose up in the middle of the 1889 Paris Exposition. Guy de Maupassant called it "an assemblage of iron ladders." Léon Bloy said Paris was imperiled by

this positively tragic lamppost springing up from its bowels . . . like a beacon of disaster and despair.
Finally, there that lovely tracery of iron stood. It's a structure of such subtle delicacy that an exact one-foot scale model would weigh only a third of an ounce! The design is that elegant and economical. In the end, we caught on to what it was Eiffel had seen. In 1919 a French writer said,
Great God, what faith its engineer must have had in terrestrial gravitation.
For 65 years Eiffel took us from railways to radios. And, along the way, he changed our artistic vision. First he shaped radical new beauty. Then he waited. And finally our eyes could see that beauty too.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

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.

Let me explain that astonishing "third-of-an-ounce" calculation. The Eiffel Tower weighs 10,600 tons or 339,200,000 ounces. It is 985 feet tall. Since the mass of a precise scale model will decrease as the cube of the ratio of heights, I divided the number of ounces by 985 cubed to check Keim's claim that a one-foot model would wiegh 1/4 ounce. I got a slightly higher number -- 0.355 ounces.
And that would be a model made of structural steel -- an absolutely gossamer model of miniature structural steel!


Photo by John Lienhard

Looking down from within the tower, a quarter of the way up

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.
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