Monday, December 20, 2010

The Eiffel Tower – A Promise Kept

Image: Gustave Eiffel’s gift to the people of France and tourists the world over

On my recent trip to Paris I finally kept a promise I have been holding myself to for over 30 years: namely that the next time I visited Paris I would go to the Eiffel Tower and make the journey to the top. The story behind that promise may be a good example of how the arrogance of youth can change as one gets older and – hopefully – wiser.

Way back in the early 1970s, when I was in my mid-20s I passed through Paris on my way back to London from Greece. I’d met a couple of other travelers on the train ride from Athens, and during our stay in Paris we went to see the Eiffel Tower.

My memory is hazy now about the exact details, but I do remember that I considered myself to be too ‘cool’ to do the standard tourist thing and actually go up the Tower. After all, it seemed such a clichéd thing to do, and even back then I was not interested in following the crowd. Of course, I was happy enough doing that other clichéd tourist activity – posing inanely before Gustave Eiffel’s Tower and getting my, “This is me in front of …” picture (a practice by the way, that I try to steer clear of now).

But then, over the years, somewhere along the way, I began to regret my decision. After all, on that 1970s trip I remember my travel companions and I did visit the Louvre, and we did go and see the Mona Lisa, and wasn’t that as much a cliché as visiting the Eiffel Tower? And just for the record, I did make another visit to Mona during my trip to Paris.

Why do we travel anyway, if not to see and experience as fully as possible the cities and locations we have chosen to visit? Going to the Louvre just to see the Mona Lisa would be a complete waste of time and money, given the effort one has to go through to actually see the painting. There are thousands of other reasons to visit the Louvre (namely the other paintings, sculptures, displays, etc), and personally I think most of them are more interesting and exciting to examine than the Mona Lisa’s whimsical smile.

The same reasoning can be used regarding the Eiffel Tower. If you are visiting just so you can cross it off your highlights list, you are missing some of the real magic of the experience. For me, that magic and wonder involves the groundbreaking feat of engineering that went into building this amazing structure, even more than the view over Paris.

Image: The bird’s-eye view from the top of the Eiffel Tower

Image: The Eiffel Tower would be hard enough to build today, let alone over 100 years ago!

Gustave Eiffel was writing the book when his company designed and built the tower that honours his name, not working out of someone else’s book of instructions.

Eiffel was born in Dijon on December 15, 1832. Graduating as an engineer in 1855, he was soon hired as associate by Charles Neveu, a manufacturer of steam engines and railway equipment. It wasn’t long before Eiffel had started his own company, and for the next 20 years or so he specialized in designing and constructing a range of projects including numerous bridges, viaducts, and other major buildings. From 1881-84 Gustave Eiffel also designed and built the framework of Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty, which now stands at the entrance of New York harbour.

Image: Gustave Eiffel ‘s metallic structure for the Statue of Liberty

Image courtesy of the Official Eiffel Tower website…

In 1884, answering a bid to mark the centenary of the 1889 French Revolution, Gustave Eiffel, together with his associates Emile Nouguier and Maurice Koechlin, pitch their idea for the construction of the Tower.

Construction involved over 5,300 drawings, and a team of 120 workers to fit together more than 18,000 parts, weighing over 10,000 tons, using 2.5 million rivets, over a period of two years. Despite the fact that the men were working hundreds of metres above the ground, only one man died during the construction of the Tower, and that accident occurred outside of regular working hours.

As you might imagine, almost immediately after its completion, the 324 metre (1,063 ft) Tower began to attract a motley collection of adventurers and thrill seekers intent on trying to be the first to set a range of records associated with the structure. These include Santos-Dumont who, in 1901, won a prize for flying higher than the Tower in an airship, and the Count de Lambert who flew over Paris in an airplane in 1909, and around the Tower for the first time.

Sadly, in 1912, a tailor nicknamed “the bird man”, died when he jumped from the first floor using a parachute of his own design and construction, and in 1926, Léon Collot, also died when he tried to fly under the Eiffel Tower. Happily, the two paratroopers who jumped from the third floor in 1984 without permission lived to tell the tale, while in 1987, a New-Zealander performed a bungee jump – again without permission – from the second floor.

Image: Some of the intricate steel lacing and support work at the first level

And so it continues. A veritable circus of stair climbers and runners, motocross and mountain bike riders, wheelchair users, and yes, Ripley, believe it or not, even a circus elephant (which climbed the stairs to the first floor) have used the Eiffel Tower to add their names to the record books.

For my money, none of those noted above are a patch on Victor Lustig who in 1925 ‘sold’ the Eiffel Tower to a scrap metal merchant after convincing him that the Tower was going to be demolished. And why not? Originally, the Tower was meant to stand for just 20 years, after which it would be pulled down. The fact that it is still around 120 years later is a testament to the design and construction skills of Gustave Eiffel and his team of workers.

Today, the Eiffel Tower is the most visited fee-paying monument in the world, attracting over 7 million visitors each year. Some twenty replicas large and small can be found around the world in countries as far afield as the Poland, Denmark, Belgium, the United States, China, Japan and Dubai. Even in France itself, a 10 metre high tower weighing 3.2 tons was built for the France in Miniature Park. One can’t help but wonder whether Gustave Eiffel, who died in 1923 at the age of 91, ever in his wildest dreams thought his tower would become such an icon, not just for Paris and France, but also for the rest of the world. One that continues to reach well into the 21st century.

For all these and more reasons, I wanted finally, to visit the Eiffel Tower after more than 30 years. If I had made that journey in the early 1970s, it would have only been for the photo opportunities it would have given me. Now that I am much older, and at least a little bit wiser, I have finally honoured that promise to return, and have done so at a time when I have been able to appreciate the engineering skills that built it – as well as to take the photographs and enjoy the great views.

More information

The Official Eiffel Tower website…

The Eiffel Tower page at Wikipedia…

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