Opinion: the fact that the iconic Parisian landmark still exists is amazing when you consider that it was only meant to last 20 years

By Valentina Balbi and Michel Destrade, NUI Galway 

When the Eiffel Tower first opened to the public on on May 15th 1889, Gustave Eiffel was a man at the pinnacle of his glory. Having worked hard for more than 30 years at establishing an impeccable record of bold and ever so ingenious engineering and civil constructions, the tower was his ultimate achievement, promised and delivered in under 26 months and just in time for the opening of the 1889 "Exposition Universelle". Three years later, Eiffel was thrown in prison and faced an uphill battle to ensure the survival of his trophy project.

Born in Burgundy, but with German origins, Gustave Bönickhausen (1832-1923) changed his name to Eiffel in 1880 to silence detractors who were calling him unpatriotic (he also spared us from a future "Bönickhausen Tower"). As the owner and manager of his company, he quickly imposed his highly efficient approach to structural engineering, with a vision of production, division of labour and even marketing which is way ahead of its time. In total, Eiffel & Cie erected more than one thousand bridges and metallic structures around the world and many are still in use today, including the Bordeaux railway bridge, the inner scaffold of the Statue of Liberty and the Gabarit railway viaduct (with a 585 metre span).

From RTÉ Radio 1's Doc On One, a radio feature by Norris Davidson to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower in 1959

When his young star engineer Maurice Koechlin and the renowned architect Stephen Sauvestre showed him the first plan for what could become the tallest man-made structure in the world at more than 300 metres, Eiffel doesn’t hesitate for long. At the time, the record belonged to the Washington Monument (169 metres), which took more than 35 years to complete.

Fascinated by the topic of air resistance, Koechlin imagined an iron pylon assembled from struts, which would let the wind blow freely through it. He also calculated that the structure will exert a very light pressure on the ground, similar to that of a man sitting on a chair. For his part, Sauvestre came up with arches joining the pillars, three instead of five platforms, a campanile at the top, and basically the final shape that we know today. Eiffel's job was to lobby the City of Paris for a 20-year concession and to manage the amazing feat of completing the project in a little over two years, in time for the Exposition.

The Eiffel Tower under construction in 1888

The foundations for the pillars are made of concrete, poured into holes that had to be dug into almost liquid mud, below the water level of the nearby Seine river. In total, 11,000 tons of iron were used in the construction, divided into 12,000 pieces held together by 2.5 million rivets, requiring 7 million holes to be drilled. Eiffel orchestrated an extremely well-organised schedule, based on 36,000 drawings coming from his workshops. The assembly was realised on site by 250 workers only, never more than 60 above the ground, as they made their way to the top, using the built part of the tower as its own scaffolding.

Eiffel also had to counter outraged noises coming from many influential artists, who started a petition, deeming the tower too ugly. Here, he showed a cunning sense of marketing and timing by inviting the press to constantly cover the construction progress. The Tower was an immediate success when it was opened to the public and a crowning achievement for Eiffel, Koechlin and Sauvestre. At more than 300 metres, it remained the tallest freestanding structure on land for more than 40 years, until the completion of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building in New York.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Mooney Goes Wild, Siobhán Silke on the longstanding legacy of the Eiffel Tower

However, Eiffel’s fortune quickly turned as he became embroiled in the Panama Canal scandal, which left millions of French shareholders out of pocket while he managed to make a fortune from the Panama Company misfortune. Tried and found guilty of misuse of funds, his lawyers managed to keep him out of jail on a technicality, but his reputation was forever tainted in the French population. He was not buried in the Pantheon (a mausoleum to the most distinguished French citizens) and there is no Eiffel museum to be found in France. Even as recently as 1996, a projected banknote commemorating his work had to be abandoned, showing how deep the resentment runs.

Once retired, Eiffel understood that "his" tower must be preserved at all costs for his name to enter history. Cleverly, he came up with a series of useful functions for the tower that will make the City of Paris renew the concession over and over again. It was used initially for scientific observatory (astronomy, aerodynamics, meteorology), then as a technical relay (telecommunications) and later as a strategic military outpost during the first World War. Through the ages, the tower survived other threats of destruction, such as two foiled terrorist bombing attempts during the Algerian war and an order from Hitler in 1944 to blow it up. Luckily, the Military governor of Paris, General von Choltitz, defied the order and prevented the destruction.

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The Eiffel Tower is now the most visited paying monument in the world, with an average of 7 million visitors each year. The latest concession runs to 2032 and the tower is currently undergoing its 20th renovation campaign, to be completed before the 2024 Olympic Games. This time, some parts will be completely scraped back to the original iron before being repainted. A team of 25 professional painters equipped with 1,500 brushes and 60 tons of paint will silently work for 18 months to give "La Dame de Fer" a new look, while the monument is still open to the public. It has been estimated that the tower loses 15 tons of rusted iron inbetween each painting session.

Every evening, the Eiffel Tower starts shining at 8pm, for five minutes every hour until 1am, with 20,000 bulbs twinkling like diamonds in the night. This spectacle can be best appreciated from the terrace of the Parc de Belleville on the other side of Paris, which offers a unique and stunning view of the entire city. For those who don’t like the tower, the best way to avoid seeing it when in Paris is, of course, to climb it.

Dr Valentina Balbi is Lecturer in Applied and Industrial Mathematics at the University of Limerick. Professor Michel Destrade is Chair of Applied Mathematics at NUI Galway and Visiting Professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at University College Dublin. He is a former Irish Research Council awardee. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ