From ‘eyesore’ to icon: a brief history of the Eiffel Tower

The wrought-iron lattice Eiffel Tower is now an iconic part of the Paris skyline – but when it was first built in the late 19th century, it faced opposition, with some branding the design an 'eyesore'. Find out more about its construction here, with this guide from BBC History Revealed

The Eiffel Tower was built by Gustave Eiffel for the International Exhibition of Paris in 1889. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

On 31 March 1889, after two years, two months and five days of construction the world welcomed the newest addition to the Paris skyline: the Eiffel Tower. Its creator, Gustave Eiffel, unfurled the Tricolore on the third level, signalling that the wrought-iron edifice was now open. Lit by 10,000 gas lamps, it was a spectacle unlike anything the world had seen before; today it is one of the most visited monuments in the world, welcoming almost seven million people every year.

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Out of 107 proposed designs, Eiffel’s tower was chosen to represent the 1889 World’s Fair (the Exposition Universelle), and commemorate the centenary of the French Revolution. The fair was to be a showcase of technology and innovation, and it was suggested that a suitably awe-inducing structure be built to demonstrate French technological prowess – and, by virtue of its position on Champ de Mars, serve as a gateway to the exhibition.

DID YOU KNOW? During the Nazi occupation of France, Adolf Hitler called for the Eiffel Tower’s demolition. Thankfully for its fans, the order was not carried out.

Who designed the Eiffel Tower?

The tower was the brainchild of entrepreneur Gustave Eiffel, architect Stephen Sauvestre, and engineers Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier. Eiffel’s reputation preceded him – he owned a metal works business and was the genius behind the steelwork frame of New York’s Statue of Liberty, built three years earlier.

The Eiffel Tower during construction
The tower, photographed here c1888, was the brainchild of entrepreneur Gustave Eiffel. (Image by Getty Images)

Construction of the Eiffel Tower required 7,300 tonnes of iron, the sweat of more than 300 labourers, and a fleet of steam-powered cranes and hydraulic jacks to manoeuvre the giant girders. Work began in January 1887, and was completed relatively quickly, in just 796 days, a feat that trumpeted French industrial accomplishment as much as the completed tower itself. At 300m high, it immediately entered the records books as the tallest structure in the world, a position it held until the unveiling of the Chrysler Building in New York in 1930.

Construction of the Eiffel Tower
At 300m high, the Eiffel Tower immediately entered the records books as the tallest structure in the world. (Image by Getty Images)

At the base of the Eiffel Tower were four wooden pavilions, which housed restaurants to serve visitors to the exposition, each of which could seat 500 people. They are likely to have been very busy indeed, as the Tower received 1,953,122 visitors during the almost six months of that year’s World’s Fair.

Crowds at the Eiffel Tower in 1899
The Tower received nearly 2 million visitors during the almost six months of that year’s World’s Fair. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Pix Inc./The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

What were the first reactions to the Eiffel Tower?

Not everyone was so welcoming of the new structure – many Parisians thought the Tower was an eyesore that clashed with the older, grander architecture of the French capital. Novelist Guy de Maupassant would often eat in one of the restaurants at the base of the Eiffel Tower, as it was the only place he could do so without having to look at it. Along with other Parisian artists and authors, de Maupassant wrote a letter to the city’s government protesting against the construction. Some were also concerned for the safety of those who had to climb to its upper reaches.

Many Parisians thought the Eiffel Tower was an eyesore

But the Tower became much more than a tourist attraction, doubling as a testing ground for serious scientific experiments that proved its wider worth. Gustave Eiffel installed a laboratory within the structure and invited scientists to use it: a version of Foucault’s pendulum was installed to demonstrate the Earth’s rotation, and a wind tunnel was also built beside it. The structure became an astronomical observation point, as well as a beacon and communications post. To symbolically ensure the Tower’s place in science history, Eiffel had the names of 72 scientists, mathematicians and engineers engraved into the Tower’s arches during construction.

Maintenance workers balance high up on the Eiffel Towe
Maintenance workers balance high up on the Eiffel Tower to change the bulbs that illuminate it at night, c1937. (Photo by Horace Abrahams/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Initial plans for the Eiffel Tower stated that it was only intended to stand for 20 years but, in 1909, it was given the green light to remain. In the intervening two decades it had proven vital in sending wireless telegraph messages around the world. During World War I, the Tower’s radiotelegraphic transmitter was used to intercept enemy communications and even helped uncover the double agent Mata Hari.

Such longevity comes at a price, however. The Eiffel Tower (and the 2.5 million rivets holding it together) have to be repainted every seven years – by hand – and though the 10,000 gas lamps are long gone, 20,000 golden bulbs now illuminate it.

The building of the Eiffel Tower is explored in an episode of Witness History on the BBC World Service.

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This content first appeared in the March 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed