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Gustave Eiffel: 100 Years Later, Still Defining 'French Entrepreneur'

The memory of the famous engineer-entrepreneur who designed much more than Paris' iconic Tower will be honored throughout 2023, on the occasion of the centenary of his death.

Portrait of Gustave Eiffel.

Gustave Eiffel in 1910.

Agence de presse Meurisse, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons/Wikipedia
Valérie de Senneville

PARIS — He never stopped creating. Although the collective memory of Gustave Eiffel today only includes the name of the 330-meter-high iron tower that symbolizes the city of Paris, he was, throughout his life, an engineer and inventor genius inventor.

From the buildings he designed all over the world, to his discoveries in meteorology and aeronautics, his work is abundant and still largely unknown.

Says Myriam Larnaudie-Eiffel, a descendant of the inventor and head of the Association des descendants de Gustave Eiffel (ADGE, Association of Descendants of Gustave Eiffel in English).

Eiffel died in 1923, at the age of 91. To mark the centenary of his death, the association decided to draw up an inventory of his work. It's a titanic task: "We've listed 500 works in over 30 countries on five continents, but we know that there are between 700 and 800 others," says Larnaudie-Eiffel.

Eiffel's distinctive style of heavy yet airy steel structures is visible in a multitude of works that symbolize an era marked by a post-1870 recession economy, but also by the development of railways and industry, which needed to be built and rebuilt quickly and cost-effectively. Eiffel was to ride the wave of emerging steel construction, constantly improving and developing.

After graduating from the Ecole Centrale in 1855, the year of the first Universal Exhibition in Paris, the young Gustave Eiffel began his career with Charles Nepveu, an engineer and builder of railroad equipment. In 1857, at the age of 27, he won his first major contract: the construction of a railroad bridge in Bordeaux. The 504-metre-long, 6.35-metre-high structure, known today as the "Eiffel footbridge," was completed in less than three years — a feat at the time.

At the age of 30, he decided to set up his own company, Eiffel & Cie, specializing in structural steelwork.

Eiffel & Cie set up its workshops in Levallois-Perret, west of Paris. It was from here that Eiffel built his reputation, culminating in the construction of the Eiffel Tower for the 1889 Universal Exhibition. Now known and recognized by most, the monument is the most visited in the world, with 6.2 million visitors in 2022, and sales of €100 million, according to the Eiffel Tower's operating company.

Global influence

Eiffel had a lifetime's worth of pioneering ideas. To set himself apart from the competition, the engineer invented and developed bridges in kits: a portable steel bridge sent to the customer, who could then assemble the product. He sold them everywhere.

His first successes came in 1867, when he built the Rouzat and Neuvial viaducts in the Allier region for the Orléans railway company, as well as the Les Folies theater, better known today as Paradis Latin, in 1868. The skillful entrepreneur was also quick to turn his hand to international business.

Eiffel exported the structures developed in his workshops, which explains why, even today, traces of his work can be found almost everywhere: from the Maria Pia viaduct over the Douro in Portugal to the Statue of Liberty, whose interior structure he built; or in the Garabit viaduct in France, which crosses the Truyère valley at an altitude of 835 meters, to the Budapest railway station in Hungary; from the Arica cathedral in Chile to the Ungheni bridge in Romania; from the locks of the Panama Canal to the Trang Tien bridge over the River of Flowers in Hue, Vietnam.

\u200bTrang Tien Bridge in Vietnam lit up at night.

Eiffel's Trang Tien Bridge in Vietnam lit up at night.

© Sergi Reboredo/Zuma

Leader of industry

Each project brought its own innovation, such as the cantilever assembly invented for the Maria Pia bridge, where each of the sections built on the banks of the Douro served as a support for assembling the subsequent sections, enabling his viaducts to soar higher over much greater distances.

For the Nice observatory, he even created a hydraulic system considered too innovative at the time, which he had to guarantee quality and functioning for ten years. Even today, the 22-meter-diameter removable dome can be admired floating in a tank filled with water solution to facilitate its opening.

The entrepreneurial engineer's reputation soared. Eiffel became a prosperous industry leader, in tune with the dynamic late 19th century: bridges and viaducts, lifting gear and cranes, lighthouses such as the San Nicolas in Manila, Philippines, and (real) gas factories in Clichy, Boulogne and Poissy, France, as well as in La Paz, Bolivia and Tacna, Peru.

Marketing skills

But if the engineer's success is due to his inventive genius, it is also due to his talent as a business leader, capable of teaming up with the right partners and finding the right political support.

A forerunner in marketing too, Eiffel used the press to spread his know-how and increase his notoriety. When authorities were reluctant to build his tower, for example, he "leaked" the plans.

He also definitively Frenchified his name. His grandfather, Alexandre Boenickhausen, had taken the name Eiffel in memory of his native German region, the Eifel. On administrative documents, the two surnames coexisted. "The German sounding name raises doubts about his French nationality, and this mere doubt is likely to cause him the greatest prejudice, either individually or commercially.", he wrote in his request to have the name removed.

Eiffel also stood out in his workshops and construction sites for his social support and particular attention to workplace accidents, which were excessively common at the time.

Legend even has it that, as a young engineer working on the Bordeaux bridge, he jumped into the water to save a worker who had fallen into the Garonne and was about to drown.

The Eiffel Tower from below.

The Eiffel Tower pictured from below.

Will B/Unsplash

Final years

Disgraced by the Panama scandal, for which he was convicted of embezzlement before being rehabilitated in 1893, Eiffel decided to give up his workshops, but not his inventions. Despite this, he retained a true scientific spirit and a curiosity for the progress of his time.

Passionate about aviation, he retreated to his laboratories to conduct research into aeronautics and aerodynamics. At the age of 70, he became a pioneer in meteorology and aeronautics. He set up a wind tunnel at the base of a tower, which he later moved to rue Boileau in Paris, where it is still in operation today.

He developed the first laws of physics in the fledgling field of aeronautics

He also devoted his last years to using his tower as a laboratory, to save it from destruction. In this way, he helped to advance the technology of wireless telegraphy, radio, meteorology, aerology and, finally, aeronautics. A friend of Gaumont, he took an interest in the fledgling cinema industry, as well as in radio, allowing military authorities to install an antenna on the 3rd floor of the tower that bears his name.

"Gustave Eiffel's constant drive for innovation has made France's reputation around the world. He embodies industrial France, and was a leader with advanced social ideas," says Myriam Larnaudie-Eiffel, who advocates the pantheonization of her illustrious ancestor.

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