Building the Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower
was built in a two year period starting in 1887 and finishing in 1889. It was
the first of its kind, built entirely of iron and completed in an amazingly
short period of time due to several innovations implemented by its project
manager, and manufacturer, Gustave Eiffel. The tower was actually designed by
its architect, Stephen Sauvestre but was named after Eiffel and for good
reason. Eiffel was not only the project manager; he was also its sponsor.
Eiffel was a mechanical engineer whose success at his profession enabled him to
start his own iron manufacturing company. Although the tower had its own
architect and engineers, they all worked for Eiffel and Eiffel managed the
project from start to finish.
Gustave Eiffel began his
career as a mechanical engineer. He got his started supervising work on an iron
railway bridge connecting Montreal
island to the mainland. He began his own business as a "constructor”
manufacturing iron for various structural projects in factory on the outskirts
of Paris. At
this time iron was widely used in the construction of bridges but not in
building construction. Eiffel broke new ground when he built the Statue of
Liberty structure from iron (F. A. Bartholdi was responsible for forming the
statue, Eiffel built the structure it rests on). He added to his reputation by
constructing the dome for the Nice observatory from iron. He was also the
constructor of the railway station in Budapest,
An engineer (Maurice
Koechlin), who helped Eiffel on one of the bridge contracts that Eiffel
completed, encouraged Eiffel to submit a proposal for the Universal Exhibition
of 1889 to be held in Paris.
His idea for the bid was a 300 meter tower made of iron which would be the
tallest structure in the world. The goal was to build a tower 1000 feet in
height. Eiffel based his design on the way he had engineered bridge supports.
The difference was the bridge supports were short relative to a 300 meter
structure and were intended to bear a horizontal load rather than a vertical
The design called for 4
columns built of iron lattice work, joined by girders at intervals and coming
together at the top. The columns were designed to angle outwards from the top
down, starting in a vertical line at the top of the tower with the outwards
angle increasing as the column approached the base. This gives the tower the
classic shape that is recognized world wide but was originally intended to
offer the minimum wind resistance.
submitted his design (the design was actually authored by two designers who
worked for Eiffel) to the city of Barcelona
for the Universal Exposition of 1888 but was rejected as too off-beat. He
submitted the design to the city of Paris
where the Exposition was to be held in 1889 and this time approval was given
for building his design on the Champs de Mars as the entrance to the
exposition. This Exposition had historical significance because it was the
centenary of the French Revolution. Eiffel did not receive approval to begin
his project until
Eiffel’s design met with
some fierce resistance from the artistic and architectural community in Paris. The artistic set
protested on aesthetic grounds while one would suspect that at least some of
the architects may have had an ulterior motive. A leading Paris
newspaper, Le Temps, published an open letter from this group in which they
called it the "Tower
of Babel” and further
referred to it as "useless and monstrous”. The letter asked the readership of Le
Temps "Will the city of Paris
continue to be associated with the strange and venal imaginations of a
machine-maker, bringing upon itself dishonour and an ugliness that can never be
corrected?” The addressee for the open letter was the Paris commission responsible for hosting the
Exposition. As if resistance from the artistic crowd weren’t enough, Eiffel
also faced critics who accused him of sacrificing engineering considerations
Eiffel fought tooth and
nail to preserve his project against these new stakeholders. He published a
response in which he asserted that engineering practicality and aesthetics were
not mutually exclusive and that the tower would be a handsome attraction that
would enhance the beauty of Paris,
rather than detract from it. He compared his design to the pyramids. He claimed
that the tower would elicit exactly the same awed reaction that the pyramids of
due to its size and form. His defense was successful; he continued to enjoy the
support of the Exposition commissioners.
Eiffel had serious
technical challenges to overcome to implement his design. Because of the height
of the tower, high winds could work on the structure and cause structural
damage or even collapse. The effect of the wind would have to be mitigated in
some way. The intended purpose of the tower was a tourist attraction for the
Exhibition and to that end restaurants were planned for the first and second
levels. The problem was how to get the tourists up the curved columns of the
tower to the restaurants.
The final challenge was
the schedule. Eiffel received final approval for his project at the end of 1886
and couldn’t begin work until January of 1887 but the entire project had to be
completed in time for the opening of the Exhibition on May 6, 1889.
Work started on the
cement pads which support each of the tower columns on January 26, 1887. The
Champs de Mars runs close to the Seine
River where the tower is
situated and since the tower straddles the street, 2 of the pads had to be
formed below the water line. The 2 pads on the side of the street opposite the
Seine were simple enough to form but the 2 on the Seine
side required the pads to be formed underwater. Fortunately for Eiffel, the Roeblings had solved this
engineering problem during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge 17 years
earlier. Eiffel used the same technology, compressed air to keep the water out
of the caissons, which the Roeblings had used. The four concrete pads are
connected to each other by four concrete walls (below ground), making one solid
foundation. Because the columns have a radical slope inwards at ground level,
the pads had to be angled to match, making for a rather odd looking form.
All the iron pieces used
in the tower were fabricated in Eiffel’s shop located on the outskirts of Paris. These pieces were
precision made to a tolerance of 1/10 of a millimeter. These iron pieces were
assembled in the shop so that subsections of the tower that were roughly 5
meters in length were shipped to site for finally assembly. On site were
between 150 and 300 skilled workers (depending on the project phase). The
pieces were bolted together in the factory and the bolts were replaced by
rivets on site. Rivets were heated until they were red hot then they were
hammered until a heads were formed. The rivets provide a tighter bond than nuts
and bolts because they contract as they cool, but the rivets require much more
effort than bolts as they have to be hammered with a sledge hammer and this
hammering is done vertically. As anyone who has ever wielded a sledge hammer
knows, swinging the tool vertically is a physically demanding activity. Now add
to that demand the requirement to hit a target as small as a rivet and keep that
up all day!
The tower was
constructed in 3 phases or levels, the first level including the base, the
second level, and the top. The construction plan called for twelve 30 meter
temporary scaffoldings and four 40 meter scaffoldings to be used for construction
to the first level. Steam cranes were used to lift the pieces and hydraulic
jacks were used to place them. The cranes traveled on the runners which would
later be used for the tower’s elevators. The plan was so accurate that despite
the enormous quantity of pieces to assemble, the first stage of the tower was
completed by December 7, 1887.
The elevators which
would ferry tourists to the 3 levels built into the tower had to travel along
the 4 columns as there was no central structure to support elevators. The
problems of elevator travel to the 3rd level at the top of the tower
(the better part of 1,000 feet) and travel in the arc shape of the columns had
to be overcome.
Eiffel overcame these
problems by dividing the tasks vertically (separate elevators to the first,
second, and third levels), and horizontally between the four columns: North,
South, East, and West. Eiffel engaged the French company of Roux Combaluzier
Lepape to construct the elevator apparatus in the East and West columns, to the
first level. They provided an apparatus using hydraulic power, chains, and
guides on the sides of the elevator cars which rolled on tracks set into the
Otis Elevator was
engaged to provide elevators to the 2nd level in the North and South
columns. Otis provided a double decker cabin, using cables and hydraulic power
to maneuver the cabins up and down the columns. Otis also installed their
safety system that would lock the cabins in place in the event of a cable
failure. The problem of carrying tourists to the third level was solved with
two counterbalancing cabins capable of holding 110 passengers each or 8 tons,
and a massive (81 meters) vertical piston to provide lift. This solution
required passengers to change cabins midway through the journey and their
experience was made more exciting by the narrow walkway (safety railed) which
they used to make the switch.
The final phase of the
project was the painting of the tower; painting of the iron tower was essential
to protecting it from rust. Painting the tower didn’t present the project with
any technical problems other than the huge areas that had to be painted and the
many surfaces and angles that had to be painted.
The entire tower was
completed by March 31 1889, five weeks ahead of the May 6 deadline.
We Can Learn from Eiffel
Planning Eiffel engaged
a team of fifty engineers and designers who produced 5,300 drawings for the
tower. It is said that if bridge construction were planned the same way as
software projects there wouldn’t be a bridge left standing. One of the reasons
that people like Eiffel were successful is the focus on planning. The team
still has to execute the plan but without a good plan there is no hope of
Eiffel took a huge risk implementing elevators to convey visitors to the 2nd
and 3rd floors of the tower. Elevators were in use by this time, but
had never before been used at these heights or to carry the loads expected.
Eiffel mitigated the risks so effectively that the last original elevator
wasn’t de-commissioned until 1983. One of the strategies he used to mitigate
this risk was engaging the Otis Elevator Company to provide elevators for the
project. Otis invented the safety elevator which locks the elevator car in
place in case of any mechanical failure.
Eiffel was also
innovative in addressing the risks of physical injury and death during
construction of the tower. Up to this point tall buildings were entirely
enclosed and falls could be restricted to one floor. No one had ever built
anything this tall in an open concept before and the risks of a fall from a
great height were dramatically increased by this fact. Eiffel mitigated this
risk by the use of movable stagings, guard-rails and safety screens. These
measures were effective in limiting the accidents on the project and it only
experienced one fatality.
The tower was originally designed with bulb shaped structure at the very top,
massive concrete pedestals to support the columns, glass walled rooms and halls
at the first level, and various other features including huge arches which
joined the 4 columns and supported the first level. All these features were
removed from the plan with the exception of the pedestals and the arches. This
not only allowed the project to complete on budget, decisions on these changes
were made before time and money were invested in their construction.
The tower was designed to offer the minimum wind resistance possible. The
design is so successful that the very top of the tower will only move 2 – 3
inches in high winds. By comparison, the effect of the sun on the tower is far
greater – the tower top will deflect up to 7 inches due to the sun’s heating of
the iron on one side of the tower.
Time Management Eiffel had a very tight
timeline to work with, 2 years and 4 months. Given the technical challenges
that had to be overcome and the scope of the project, this was a very demanding
goal. Eiffel and his team managed to bring the project in 5 weeks ahead of
schedule. That success was due to several factors: the high degree of detail
that went into the plan, the speed at which technical challenges were overcome,
the commitment of the team working on the project, and innovations that Eiffel
introduced to keep to deadline. Eiffel succeeded in beating the deadline
without sacrificing any of his strategies for worker safety.
Tower Height: The tower was
originally built to a height of 300 meters (984 feet). This was later increased
to 324 meters (1063 feet) with the addition of communications antennas.
Tower Weight: 10,100 tons. Weight of
the metal structure: 7,300 tons. The weight on the pads at the four corners of
the tower is only 4.5 kg per square centimeter. Another piece of trivia that I
find fascinating: the weight of the tower is no greater than the weight of the
air in a cylinder large enough to enclose the tower. The total weight of the
tower includes the 60 tons of paint required to protect it from oxidization.
Composition: The tower consists of
18,038 individual parts fastened with 2,500,000 rivets.
Records: The Eiffel tower was
the tallest structure in the world until the Chrysler building was completed in
Number of Visitors: The Eiffel Tower
welcomed 6,719,200 visitors in 2006 over 200,000,000 since it opened in 1889.
Construction Time: 2 years, 2 months and 5
Gustave Eiffel left an
enduring legacy which the country of France and the whole world have
enjoyed since its opening in 1889. It is a rather unique construction
undertaking because it has no practical purpose such as the Hoover Dam or Brooklyn Bridge; its sole purpose is the
entertainment of tourists. Yet, as the 200,000,000 tourists who have visited it
since its opening can attest, it is a great commercial success.
His careful attention to
detailed planning, as illustrated by the 5,300 engineering drawings used in its
construction, enabled Eiffel to complete the project in just a little over 2
years. He not only had to erect an iron building close to 1,000 feet in height,
something no-one had ever attempted before, he had to solve the technical
problems of transporting tourists up to the 3 levels of shops and restaurants
built to entertain them. He managed all this and still brought the project
ahead of schedule, with 5 weeks to spare.
Eiffel was also
successful in creating a safe work environment for the crews working on the
tower; only 1 workman died during its construction. We should keep in mind the
relatively small number of workers involved before making comparisons to other
projects such as the Brooklyn
Bridge or Hoover Dam
though. Eiffel’s project only involved 300 workers and not all of them worked
The one area that Eiffel
could have improved was his communications
with the project’s stakeholders. I’m not referring to his customers, the
commissioners of the Paris Exhibition, I’m referring to the artists, authors,
sculptors, and architects who complained of the project to the press and
commissioners. He made no attempt to engage them before the project began and
had to deal with their negative action when they became aware of the plans.
Communicating with these people before hand and involving them in discussions
about the aesthetics of the structure could have averted this conflict. I
wouldn’t be too critical of Eiffel however. The concept of engaging the
community in which large construction projects are to take place is a
relatively new concept in the project management world and certainly not
prevalent when Gustave Eiffel built his tower.
Gustave Eiffel has had
the last word in the debate over the technical viability and beauty of the Eiffel Tower.
There are over 200,000,000 people who have visited and admired the tower and
many, many more who have viewed it in movies, pictures, and postcards. The Eiffel Tower
is probably the single most recognizable landmark in France today. It captivates its
audience with its beauty and awes them with its size.