Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 189:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 189.

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 created them.

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 20th century -- to flight. In fact, he designed one of the early wind tunnels.

I'll tell you about another tower he designed -- one that's even more familiar than the Eiffel Tower. But first 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 900-foot pylon rising out of its center?

Of course, 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-sightednesss as it is a reminder that new ideas are alien, no matter how good they are. Eiffel was vindicated when tourists quickly paid for the tower. And he plainly told us what he was doing:

The curves of the four piers rising from an enormous base and narrowing toward the top, will give a great impression of strength and beauty.

The remark about "commercial America" in the artists' manifesto was ironic, because five years earlier it was Eiffel who designed the huge steel tower inside the Statue of Liberty. The Eiffel Tower, for all its grace, did have a hard commercial side. But the Statue of Liberty symbolized the ideals of France and America.

The Eiffel Tower contrasts starkly with the Statue of Liberty. Liberty, the largest statue ever built, is a delicate, graceful copper shell. She's been spun around Eiffel's complex but invisible skeleton. And she speaks explicitly to the French and American love of freedom. The Eiffel Tower makes no such direct symbolic appeal. Its esthetic purpose is the structure itself. It's no more than simple beauty in its own right.

Eiffel fascinates us by shifting so smoothly between two radically different esthetic aims. It's wonderful enough to have stamped two countries with their identifying marks. But Eiffel's greater accomplishment was branding us in such completely different ways.

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

(Theme music)

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 tower.

This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1706.


Photo by John Lienhard

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

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H. Lienhard.
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