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Gustave Eiffel: The Man Behind The Masterpiece
by Karen Plumley

When nearly two million visitors besieged the newly opened Eiffel Tower during the Paris Centennial Exposition of 1889, Gustave Eiffel remarked, "I ought to be jealous of the tower, it is much more famous than I am." A lighthearted remark perhaps, but true nonetheless. Despite a long and highly illustrious career, Eiffel was all but unknown outside of engineering circles during his lifetime.

Born on December 15, 1832, in Dijon, France, Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel grew up to become an engineer at a time when those in the profession were widely considered uneducated and uncultured. Eiffel, however, did not fit the mold. He was a great admirer of classic literature, with a vast library of leather-bound works by Voltaire, Zola, Hugo, and others. He published 31 books and treatises documenting his numerous projects and experiments during his lifetime. He swam and fenced well into his 80s, and garnered honors and awards from governments around the world.

Gustave Eiffel Picture

Eiffel's sophistication was not surprising considering his ancestry. Formerly from Germany, the family of Eiffel's father had built a prosperous tapestry-making business in France, which had provided several generations with a comfortable living. In the 18th century, master merchant weavers were considered to be members of an elite trade, making Eiffel's origins an interesting combination of bourgeois and artisan.

It was Eiffel's father, however, who ended the family dynasty, when he rejected the family trade and ran away at 16 to join the army. Although a respected soldier who had served under Napoleon Bonaparte, Eiffel's father may not have earned such a respectable status in Dijon society had he not married the daughter of a wealthy lumber merchant.

Eiffel's mother was an intelligent woman with an exceptional head for business. She was not only responsible for Eiffel's early education, but she also built a thriving business in coal-loading and storage stations, as well as a shipping and delivery business, both of which were ultimately sold for a significant profit. Later, Eiffel's mother would also help him start his own business, and the two would remain very close throughout her life.

Despite their business success and lengthy, middle-class Parisian lineage, Eiffel's parents were considered nouveaux riches in 19th century France, a fact that later hampered Eiffel's attempts to marry into good society in Bordeaux . When Madame de Grangent refused her daughter's hand to him based on his family's social position, Eiffel was mortified.

Not able to reach the upper middle class, Eiffel settled on the provincial middle class, marrying Marie Guadelet, the granddaughter of the brewer Edouard Régneau, in 1862. The couple had fifteen happy years and five children together before Marie caught pneumonia and died in 1887. Devastated, Eiffel would live another 36 years without ever marrying again.

Early Influences

In his youth, the two strongest influences in Eiffel's life were his uncle Jean-Baptiste Mollerat, a successful chemist who had invented a process for distilling vinegar from wood, and another local chemist, Michel Perret. The two men spent a lot of time with the curious boy, filling his head with ideas on everything from mining and chemistry to religion and philosophy.

Uncle Mollerat was not only an esteemed man of science, but also a man of strong republican views and friend to many distinguished revolutionaries. When he told Eiffel, "Make sure you remember, son, that all kings are rogues," it greatly displeased the boy's Bonapartist family. Mollerat's political ideologies would eventually cause a rift within the family that would change the course of Eiffel's life.

At school, Eiffel was exceptionally inquisitive, but not particularly studious. While attending the Lycée Royal, the boy was bored and felt the atmosphere was confining and the classes a waste of time. It was not until his last two years at school that Eiffel found his niche - not in engineering classes, but in history and literature. His grades improved dramatically, and he ultimately graduated with a double baccalaureate in humanities and science.

Eiffel went on to attend Sainte Barbé College in Paris, in order to prepare for the entrance exams to the prestigious École Polytechnique. Although still not fond of school, Eiffel loved Paris and spent all his free time swimming in the Seine River, attending plays and visiting the Louvre. When he failed to gain entrance to the Polytechnique, Eiffel wasted no time brooding and instead entered the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures, a liberal private school that eventually became known as one the top engineering schools in Europe.

Eiffel declared chemistry his major, as his uncle Mollerat had promised him a job as a chemist at his vinegar works in Dijon. However, in 1855, shortly before Eiffel was to earn his degree, his parents had a falling out with his uncle and were no longer on speaking terms. Under the circumstances, Eiffel could not take the job his uncle had once offered him, and fate it would seem, forced him to pursue a new career path.

Life before the tower

With no job prospects in sight, Eiffel eventually took a position in an engineering firm headed by Charles Nepveu, an official of the French society of Civil Engineering. Although the company went bankrupt a short time later, Eiffel was hired as chief of research by the Belgian firm that subsequently bought the company.

In 1858, at the age of 25, Eiffel got his first big break. He was given the responsibility of overseeing the construction of a 1,600-foot bridge of cast iron, which would span the Garonne River near the city of Bordeaux - and he was to complete the task in just two years. With such a short time to finish the project, Eiffel was inspired to develop the first of many significant engineering innovations: a system of hydraulic presses (machines that were operated by water, steam and compressed air), which enabled the workers to drive the structure's foundation materials into the 80-foot-deep river. Not only did the bridge open on schedule, but Eiffel's reputation as an innovative and efficient engineer was also established.

In 1864, now married and permanently settled in Paris, Eiffel ventured out to start his own business. Over the next twenty years, Eiffel would develop and perfect numerous innovative methods that would ultimately assist in the construction of his magnum opus. For example, while designing the entrance hall of the Palais des Machines for the 1878 Paris Universal Exposition, Eiffel developed a method that created sturdy but lightweight trusses and arches. The structures had a web-like appearance that made them interesting to look at, but also enabled them to withstand the elements, including high wind.

One of his first big projects with his own company was the construction of the Sioule Bridge, which stood 262 feet above the Sioule River, making it one of the world's tallest bridges at the time. The project enabled Eiffel to test three important innovations, which he would later implement in the construction of the Eiffel Tower: He used wrought iron rather than the heavy, brittle iron normally used for bridges, as he found it to be stronger, more flexible, and better able to withstand strong winds; he curved the edges of the piers, which were usually square or rectangular, to create a more durable, stable base; and he developed a system known as "launching," which used rockers to more easily move individual pieces of the bridge into place, like a giant seesaw.

Eiffel's reputation continued to grow with his portfolio of projects, which included prefabricated campaign bridges for the military, the famous Bon Marché department store in Paris, iron framing for the cathedral of Notre-Dame, and his most prominent work before his famed tower - the Statue of Liberty.

Created by noted sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, the Statue of Liberty was to be presented by the French as a token of goodwill and friendship to the United States in honor of its Centennial Exposition of 1876. Bartholdi had designed the 151-foot woman, but did not know how to best construct the statue so it could be disassembled for shipping to New York . Also, how could the massive statue be stabilized to withstand the Atlantic winds that were known to gust through Lady Liberty's intended home in New York Harbor?

Enter Gustave Eiffel. Having established a solid reputation as a man in the business of making things that did not fall down, Eiffel was called upon to assist in the construction of the statue. Eiffel built an iron skeleton frame to which sheets of metal could then be attached, and embedded vertical steel beams in the granite base of the statue to which thin copper sheets were attached. The result was a lighter but stronger statue that was able to bear immense weight and withstand the harsh elements. Once again, Eiffel had demonstrated his ability to solve the most complex and stubborn technical problems using innovative techniques that nobody had previously dared to try.

Success and Scandal

In 1889, Eiffel's vast experience and innovative methods culminated in the construction of his famous tower on the Champs de Mars. But his glory days were unfortunately short-lived. Despite careful planning of three ambitious projects after the tower - the central metropolitan line in Paris, an underwater bridge across the English Channel and an observatory on Mont-Blanc - the esteemed engineer's greatest success would also be the last major structure he ever built.

In 1887, Eiffel's company had begun to design and build the patented locks that were to be used in the Panama Canal project. However, less than a year later, the company that hired him went bankrupt, and the project was halted. For the next five years, an investigation was conducted into the bankruptcy, which had wiped out the savings of hundreds of thousands of French investors. Eiffel was accused of misusing funds, and for several years he invested much of his money and energy into fighting the charges. Eiffel was ultimately cleared of all wrongdoing, but after the strain of the investigation and the Eiffel Tower project, he was more than ready to give up the limelight. In 1893, Eiffel resigned as chairman of the board of his company.

Life after the Tower

Although officially absent from the engineering scene after 1893, Eiffel was hardly in retirement. For the next thirty years, Eiffel lived and worked in the tower that bore his name, and these years were in many ways the most creative and fulfilling of his life. He now had time to devote to his other interests such as meteorology, aerodynamics and telecommunications.

On December 27, 1923, Gustave Eiffel died peacefully at home at the age of ninety-one. Although Eiffel had been proud of his tower, he often felt that its fame had prevented a public and professional appreciation of his larger talents as an engineer and researcher.

When Eiffel bestowed the family name on his tower, it was a justifiable act of pride, but one he might have come to regret. Over time, the name and the monument became one and the same, while the man behind the masterpiece gradually disappeared in the towering shadow of his creation.


Green, Meg. The Eiffel Tower. Lucent Books, Inc., 2001.
Loyrette, Henri. Gustave Eiffel. Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1985.
The official website of the Eiffel Tower:

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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