December 15, 1832 — Alexandre Gustave Eiffel was born on this day. He became a civil engineer responsible for the tower that bears his name and which became the iconic symbol of Paris – and, indeed, France itself. But he also played an important role in building the equally iconic symbol of the United States – the Statue of Liberty.
The Eiffel Tower was built as the main exhibit of the 1889 Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair), held to commemorate the centennial of the French Revolution. Eiffel designed and oversaw construction of the project, which was completed on 31 March, 1889.
The tower remained the world’s tallest man-made structure for 41 years until the completion of the Chrysler Building in New York in 1930.
The original plan was that it would be dismantled after 20 years but it was saved because of its use as a wireless telegraph transmitter.
It also went on to become a growingly popular attraction despite fears by critics at the start that it would be an ugly structure dominating the Paris skyline.
Such was its status in 1940 that it was one of the first locations where Adolf Hitler chose to be photographed after he invaded France in 1940.
Interestingly, though the French could do nothing about Hitler's presence, Resistance fighters were determined that the Fuhrer would not have the satisfaction of ascending the structure – so the lift cables were cut before the Germans got there. Reaching the top then meant a climb of 1,665 steps.
Nazi soldiers were nevertheless ordered to climb to the summit and hoist the swastika – which they managed to do. But the flag was so large it blew away after a few hours and had to be replaced by a smaller one. Hitler's reaction is not recorded.
Early in his career, Eiffel had built a number of bridges for the French railway network and had developed a reputation as a man who knew a thing or two about wind resistance. Just the man to tackle the problems posed by a giant statue designed to stand in New York Harbor.
The Statue of Liberty, a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States, was designed by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and built by Eiffel. It was dedicated in 1886.
To make the edifice stable, Eiffel came up with a four-legged pylon structure which would support the copper sheeting that made up the body of the statue. The entire structure was assembled at his works in Paris, then dismantled and shipped to the United States in crates.
But he will probably be best remembered for the Eiffel Tower – a structure that was lucky to survive the Second World War. In August 1944, Allied troops were advancing towards Paris and it became obvious that the Germans would soon be driven out.
A furious Hitler sent orders to General Dietrich von Choltitz, the military governor of Paris, to turn the city into rubble – including the Eiffel Tower. Thankfully, Choltitz did not carry out the command.
The much-loved tower is 324 metres tall (including antennas) and weighs 10,100 tonnes.
The French car manufacturer Citroen treated it as a giant billboard between 1925 and 1934 using a quarter of a million light bulbs to emblazon their name on the structure. The Guinness Book of Records recorded it as the world’s biggest advertisement.
But perhaps the most bizarre incident involving the tower came in 2008. A woman with an objects fetish "married" the Eiffel Tower, changing her name to Erika La Tour Eiffel in honour of her "partner". The "bride," who was at one time a US soldier, was obviously attracted by strong, silent types.
There's no telling what Gustave Eiffel would have made of it all. He died in 1923, aged 91.
Published: November 27, 2017