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The Construction of the Eiffel Tower
by Karen Plumley

The Competition

Had it not been M. Gustave Eiffel who won the $800 first-place prize in the design competition for 1889's Exposition Universelle, the Paris skyline would look very different today.

On May 2, 1886, the Centennial Exposition Committee invited French architects and engineers to submit building designs for the upcoming World Fair in Paris, which was to commemorate the 100 th anniversary of the French Revolution. Despite a short deadline, more than 100 proposals poured in-ranging from the banal to the bizarre.

One design resembled a massive guillotine, which the committee felt was taking the French Revolution theme a little too far. Another entrant favored utility over grandiosity, suggesting a tower shaped like a giant water sprinkler, which could be used to water Paris in case of a drought. Yet another entry proposed a monumental, 1,000-foot granite lighthouse, which, the designers claimed, would be so powerful that people in even the most remote sections of Paris would receive enough light to read a newspaper at night.

Fortunately for millions of future tourists, many of the contending designs were deemed unworkable or insufficiently researched, and M. Eiffel made a compelling case for his 300-meter iron tower. Civilizations had been building with stone for centuries, Eiffel argued, and the only way to truly symbolize France 's significant technological and economic progress was with a new material: metal. In describing his vision, Eiffel said that only metal could make the tower "seem to spring out of the ground and somehow be molded by the action of the wind itself." He also stressed his tower's usefulness in such areas as meteorology and optical telegraphy; its certain popular success and relatively modest cost; and finally, the certainty that his tower could realistically be constructed.

Gustave Eiffel Picture

But when the exposition committee finally declared the Eiffel Tower to be the winning design, there were plenty of skeptics who questioned whether what Eiffel proposed on paper could actually be made a reality. After all, the tallest tower in the world at the time was the Washington Monument at 555 feet, and it had taken (including an interruption for the Civil War) more than 36 years to construct. Eiffel's colossal 1,000-foot tower would dwarf the American obelisk-and he had less than two years to finish the project.

Although confident that his tower would be successful, Eiffel would have been justified in harboring some momentary doubts. The contract awarded him by the committee stated that Eiffel himself, not his company, was solely responsible for the entire tower project, including its construction, financing and maintenance during the exhibition. In return for his work, Eiffel would receive the sum of 1.5 million francs, as well as all income derived from the commercial use of the tower for a period of 20 years following the close of the exhibition.

The grant of 1.5 million francs would not begin to cover the cost of completing the project, which was estimated at 6 million francs. Nonetheless, Eiffel accepted the risky terms of the agreement, and on January 1, 1887 -despite continuous growling from the naysayers-he took possession of the designated site on the Champ de Mars and prepared to build his tower.

The Preparations

Eiffel's design specified a 300-meter, 7,000-ton wrought-iron tower, with a base measuring 125 square meters. There would be a 4,200-square-meter glass-paneled gallery on the first level; a 900-square-meter gallery on the second level; and a 250-square-meter glass-paneled dome on the third level, with a balcony offering a spectacular view from the Bois de Boulogne to Vincennes.

An expert on the characteristics of various metals by this point in his career, Eiffel had decided that wrought iron was the only available material that would provide the necessary combination of strength, flexibility, durability and affordability to make his design a reality.

The main issue Eiffel had wrestled with in his design was how to protect the tower from the wind, as the lattice beams he was accustomed to using on the bridges he constructed would not work here. Instead, Eiffel designed the tower with a series of lattice-trussed piers with incurving edges, with the curvature of the uprights mathematically determined to provide the most efficient wind resistance possible. His design proved to be engineering genius as the tower has never swayed more that 9 centimeters in even the strongest winds, and many of today's skyscrapers are constructed in much the same way.

First put to paper back in 1884, the tower design had been revised many times, with Eiffel carefully calculating each aspect to insure that every beam, bolt and hole would be as precise as possible. However, the location the committee had selected for his project introduced a whole new set of challenges.

When Eiffel ordered soil samples from the site on which he was to build, he discovered that the land to the south and east of the spot was firm and suitable for his purpose, while the land to the north and west consisted of soft, mucky soil that was less than an ideal base for the foundations of the massive tower. Additionally, this area was close to the Seine and faced the constant threat of flooding.

Eiffel decided the only solution was to use two different systems to set the tower's foundation piers-a dry foundation system for the south and east and a compressed air system for the area closest to the Seine. And by digging the riverside foundations sixteen feet deeper than those on the dry side, Eiffel calculated that the piers would be stable enough to support the weight of the massive structure.

At last the time for committees and calculations had come to an end, and construction of Eiffel's magnum opus could begin.

The Construction

Considering the magnitude of the tower project, Eiffel's work crew was quite small, never exceeding 250 at any one time. More than 5,000 mechanical drawings depicting 18,038 different parts of the tower had been created before the first beam was lifted in order to eliminate all guess work during the actual construction. Due to this extraordinarily detailed planning, Eiffel was able to set new standards for accuracy in design and speed of construction with only a modest work force.

But for all of Eiffel's careful planning and concern for safety, the men still faced challenging work conditions. In addition to working on what was to be the tallest structure in the world, the crew was also required to adjust to new equipment and technology, much of which had never been used before.

The construction process was infused with Eiffel's exceptional innovation from the very beginning. To install the riverside foundations, Eiffel used injected compressed air and watertight, metal caissons, which are generally used in underwater construction. The workers could climb down into a caisson, which was like an underground room, and work below the level of the Seine, using pickaxes to break up the soil that the caisson itself had loosened. As they removed the soil, the 34-ton caissons would sink deeper and break up more soil and rocks for the workers to remove.

Eiffel Tower Picture

Once the digging was complete, the workmen poured 20 feet of quick-drying cement into each hole to provide a base for the foundation piers. The cement was topped with massive blocks of limestone, which were then capped by two layers of cut stone from the Château Landon quarry. The same quarry had provided stone for two other well-known Parisian monuments - the Arc de Triomphe and Sacré Coeur.

For further stability, an iron base called a shoe was bolted to each stone. Here Eiffel added another innovative touch to his design, placing a piston in the hollow of each shoe, which could be moved by water released under pressure. The pistons, acting as hydraulic jacks, could raise or lower each of the sixteen caissons under the foundation piers, ensuring that the tower would be in perfect alignment.

By the end of June 1887, the tower's foundation was complete, and curious spectators would finally watch the tower start to take shape. In order to ensure that every hole and rivet was in exactly the right spot, Eiffel's construction plan called for each element of the tower to be formed separately at his factory in Levallois-Perret. Each of the more than 18,000 parts used to build the tower was traced out to an accuracy of a tenth of a millimeter and then assembled in pieces measuring about five meters each and weighing no more than three tons.

Every day, the finished iron pieces arrived at the building site by horse-drawn wagons from the shop on the outskirts of Paris. Thanks to Eiffel's precise system, there was never any need for last minute checking; once on site, the pieces were simply lifted into position by steam-powered cranes.

Eiffel Tower Picture

As the tower gradually began to rise, Eiffel implemented yet another innovation, without which the project would probably not have been completed. Creeper cranes were installed on the sloping tracks inside the piers with arms that could lift construction material from the ground to the tower's higher platforms. The machines could pivot 360 degrees and could move up the tracks as the work progressed. Without the creeper cranes, it would have been almost impossible to hoist the necessary material to the top of the giant tower.

Slowly the tower grew, reaching 92 feet by October 10, 1887, and 380 feet by July 14, 1888, when the tower was the scene of many festivities in honor of Bastille Day. But work quickly resumed, as there now remained only eight short months until the opening day of the World Fair.

Now, throughout the hot summer months, the workers would have to put in twelve-hour days to finish the tower on schedule. Nothing escaped Eiffel's attention in his determination to ensure speed and efficiency; when he realized that the workers' lunch hours were wasting valuable time because it now took so long to climb down and back up the soaring tower, he had a canteen built on the first level of the tower.

As construction neared the top of the tower, Eiffel had to adjust his building methods once again. A steam-powered winch would lift materials placed in its hooks and ropes from the ground to the first level. From there, a second winch would transport the material to a third winch, installed on a platform 650 feet above the ground, which then passed the pieces to the creeper cranes. Visitors would watch in amazement as the entire process of lifting material from the ground to the highest elevation took only 20 minutes.

The final critical element of the construction process was the installation of the elevator system, which was the only job that Eiffel had to subcontract. Because the powerful hydraulic technology he insisted on using was less than a decade old, and because he had relatively little control over the project, Eiffel was more nervous about this aspect of the construction than any other. Yet it seemed a necessary evil, as Eiffel realized it was unlikely many visitors would be willing to climb 1,665 steps to reach the top of the tower.

The addition of elevators was further complicated by the inclination of the tower's legs, which meant the elevator cars would have to travel on curved tracks aligned at different angles. The elevators would also have to carry a large number of people and be in continuous use, so Eiffel would accept nothing less than the best technology of the time. In the end, Eiffel hired three different companies - two French and one American - to accomplish the task.

After months of arduous labor and uncertainty, the tower was finally near completion. By early 1889, all that remained were a few finishing touches to prepare for the thousands of visitors expected at the exposition.

Eiffel Tower Picture

On the third floor balcony, two powerful spotlights were mounted and positioned to illuminate different monuments around Paris. At the very top of the tower was an electric beacon with a range of nearly 120 miles. The beacon was enclosed in a cylinder of red, white and blue prisms, the French national colors, and was timed to flash every ninety seconds. Finally, the tower was painted in Barbados bronze, a reddish brown color, which was applied in progressively lighter shades from bottom to top in the hopes of making the tower look even taller.

And then it was over. Through criticism and ridicule, one fatality, a workers strike and even a lawsuit, Eiffel had seen his dream through to reality. He had not only made his deadline, but he'd finished the project with a final price tag 6 percent under the $1.6 million he had estimated.

On May 15, 1889, the Eiffel Tower was finally opened to the public. During the six months the exposition ran, nearly two million people came to explore and admire Eiffel's engineering triumph. The only area to which visitors were denied access was a little spiral staircase rising from the third floor of the tower to M. Eiffel's private apartment. Modest rooms for such a celebrated gentleman, but they allowed the artist to live in his masterpiece.

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Karen Plumley is a regular contributor to Paris Eiffel Tower News and other tourism websites. Should you want her to write for you, please reach her at .

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