Today it is impossible to conceive of the Parisian skyline without the Eiffel Tower but 130 years ago the structure had not even begun to be built. In 1886 a competition was held for the construction of a tower, to be built as part of the Exposition Universelle fair in Paris in 1889. The competition was won by Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923), a civil engineer who had already built many bridges and other metal structures, including the internal structure of the Statue of Liberty. The Exhibition marked the 100th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille and so it was fitting that the engineer chosen should have built dominating structures in two nations linked by their revolutionary past.
The 1889 fair covered a total area of 0.96 km2 and had engineering at its heart: visitors were transported by 1.9 miles of 2’0” gauge railway which was built by Decauville and Company; apparently it carried 6,342,446 visitors in just six months of operation. At the entrance of the Exposition was the Tower, one of a number of constructs put in place for the event. The Tower was originally intended to be temporary, and part of the brief for the design was that it should be easy to dismantle. It weighed 7,300 tons (excluding the hydraulic machinery and foundations) and was held together by over 2.5 million rivets, yet is so lightweight that if reduced to one-thousandth of its size it would weigh only seven grams.
Eiffel was guaranteed ‘enjoyment of the tower’ for 20 years, following which it would pass to the City of Paris. Construction began in 1887. Each stage was completed on schedule, and the tower itself was opened on 31st March 1889. However, the workers had to work through the night to have it ready for opening day. Mousier Salles (Eiffel’s son-in-law) stated that “no soldier on the battle field deserved better mention than these humble toilers, who, will never go down in history.” At this time there were no lifts in the structure, so guests had to climb the 1789 steps to reach the top. It took an hour and five minutes to do so, and Gustave Eiffel himself flew the Tricolour from the top of the tower. A spiral staircase led to a gallery housing the lantern at the top. However, hydraulic lifts were soon installed using three different systems, no doubt to the relief of future visitors!
The Eiffel Tower was immediately popular. During the six months of the fair almost 2 million people visited. Some of these early visitors were Members of the IMechE, who held their summer meeting in Paris in 1889, and were given a tour by Gustave Eiffel himself. He was made an Honorary Member the same year. The visit is recorded in the Institution’s Proceedings, the first job of which was to describe this new structure to those at home. It is described as essential being an iron pyramid composed of four individual great curved columns connected together by belts of girders at the different stories which unite at the top and are here connected by “ordinary” bracing. The design was composed to be wind resistant. Provision for lightening protection was also built-in. 19” diameter cast iron pipes passed through the water-bearing strata below the level of the Seine to a depth of 60 feet, their upper ends were connected to the Tower’s ironwork.
The Tower is arguably the most enduring symbol of the Exposition but it was far from the only engineering spectacle. A Machine Hall with a large central dome by Louis Béroud held items relating to mining, railways, sugar and boiler machinery, metallurgy, electricity and public works. The publication Engineering highlighted several of these, including a “Great Model of the Earth” by Theodore Villard and Charles Cotard. Fort de France’s Schoelcher Library is an elaborate iron and glass structure decorated with ceramic tiles in a Byzantine-Egyptian-Romanesque style which began life as an Exposition building. The Exposition also included a reconstruction of the Bastille and its surrounding neighbourhood, with an interior courtyard covered with a blue ceiling decorated with fleur-de-lys and used as a ball room and gathering place.