Saturday, December 15, 2007

Eiffel's Towers

When you stand under the web of steel that arches high over your head, you have to tilt back so far that you almost lose your balance. The scale is nothing if not monumental. It stands 1,047 feet tall. It took 50 engineers and designers 5300 blueprints to specify the structure known as the Eiffel Tower.

Today is the birthday of Gustave Eiffel who was born December 15, 1832 in Dijon, France. Who isn't familiar with the iconic Eiffel Tower? It has over-shadowed Paris since it was built in 1889. I can remember the first time I visited the tower. It was amazing! It never looked that large in pictures. I felt somehow humbled by its presence.

Gustave Eiffel didn't set out to become a structural engineer. While he did attend a technical college in Paris (École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures), he graduated not as an engineer but with a degree in chemistry. Life often rudely derails the best plans and young Gustave could not find a job as a chemist and took an entry level job managing part of a railroad bridge building project. He was good enough at his work that his supervisor gave him more and more responsibility building other bridges. Eiffel eventually set up a project management consulting company for structural engineering projects. The Eiffel Tower was an example of his work as contractor working in collaboration with Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier, structural engineers, and Stephen Sauvestre, architect. The tower has long-since surpassed its original intended life of 20 years. The Tower now hosts over six and a half million visitors a year.

But this was not the first tower with which Eiffel was involved. When Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi sculpted the Statue of Liberty as a gift from France to the United States for the U.S. Centennial celebration, a scaffold of steel was needed to support the plates of Lady Liberty. Eiffel was contracted to design and build the pylon. The unique structure allows the 200,000 pounds of copper plates to move independently in order to reduce stresses on the overall Statue. So Eiffel has both his famous Tower in Paris and a less visible but equally technically impressive structure standing in New York Harbor.

Ironically, I have been to Paris to stand beneath (and ascend) the Eiffel Tower but I have never been to the Statue of Liberty in my own country. But regardless of my failing to make the journey, my hat is off to Gustave Eiffel. Few get a chance to create something that persists in the collective consciousness so strongly as the gracefully rising web of steel of his grand Parisian Tower. And while you can't see it as easily, his work supports that equally iconic statue that personifies America.

[Images from Wikipedia]

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