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Origins and Construction of the Eiffel Tower

Everything about the Tower


It was at the 1889 Exposition Universelle, the date that marked the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, that a great competition was launched in the Journal Officiel.
The wager was to "study the possibility of erecting an iron tower on the Champ-de-Mars with a square base, 125 metres across and 300 metres tall". Selected from among 107 projects, it was that of Gustave Eiffel, an entrepreneur, Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier, both engineers, and Stephen Sauvestre, an architect, that was accepted.
The first digging work started on the 28th January 1887. On the 31st March 1889, the Tower had been finished in record time – 2 years, 2 months and 5 days – and was established as a veritable technical feat.

The Design of the Eiffel Tower

koechlin masque photo
The Koechlin plan

The plan to build a tower 300 metres high was conceived as part of preparations for the World's Fair of 1889.

Emile Nouguier and Maurice Koechlin, the two chief engineers in Eiffel's company, had the idea for a very tall tower in June 1884. It was to be designed like a large pylon with four columns of lattice work girders, separated at the base and coming together at the top, and joined to each other by more metal girders at regular intervals. The company had by this time mastered perfectly the principle of building bridge supports. The tower project was a bold extension of this principle up to a height of 300 metres - equivalent to the symbolic figure of 1000 feet. On September 18 1884 Eiffel registered a patent "for a new configuration allowing the construction of metal supports and pylons capable of exceeding a height of 300 metres"

In order to make the project more acceptable to public opinion, Nouguier and Koechlin commissioned the architect Stephen Sauvestre to work on the project's appearance..

Sauvestre proposed stonework pedestals to dress the legs, monumental arches to link the columns and the first level, large glass-walled halls on each level, a bulb-shaped design for the top and various other ornamental features to decorate the whole of the structure. In the end the project was simplified, but certain elements such as the large arches at the base were retained, which in part give it its very characteristic appearance.

The curvature of the uprights is mathematically determined to offer the most efficient wind resistance possible. As Eiffel himself explains: "All the cutting force of the wind passes into the interior of the leading edge uprights. Lines drawn tangential to each upright with the point of each tangent at the same height, will always intersect at a second point, which is exactly the point through which passes the flow resultant from the action of the wind on that part of the tower support situated above the two points in question. Before coming together at the high pinnacle, the uprights appear to burst out of the ground, and in a way to be shaped by the action of the wind".

The construction

Factory at Levallois-Perret masque photo
Factory at Levallois-Perret

The assembly of the supports began on July 1, 1887 and was completed twenty-two months later.

All the elements were prepared in Eiffel’s factory located at Levallois-Perret on the outskirts of Paris. Each of the 18,000 pieces used to construct the Tower were specifically designed and calculated, traced out to an accuracy of a tenth of a millimetre and then put together forming new pieces around five metres each. A team of constructors, who had worked on the great metal viaduct projects, were responsible for the 150 to 300 workers on site assembling this gigantic erector set.

All the metal pieces of the tower are held together by rivets, a well-refined method of construction at the time the Tower was constructed.

First the pieces were assembled in the factory using bolts, later to be replaced one by one with thermally assembled rivets, which contracted during cooling thus ensuring a very tight fit. A team of four men was needed for each rivet assembled: one to heat it up, another to hold it in place, a third to shape the head and a fourth to beat it with a sledgehammer. Only a third of the 2,500,000 rivets used in the construction of the Tower were inserted directly on site.

The rivet workers masque photo
The rivet workers

The uprights rest on concrete foundations installed a few metres below ground-level on top of a layer of compacted gravel.

Each corner edge rests on its own supporting block, applying to it a pressure of 3 to 4 kilograms per square centimetre, and each block is joined to the others by walls. On the Seine side of the construction, the builders used watertight metal caissons and injected compressed air, so that they were able to work below the level of the water.

The tower was assembled using wooden scaffolding and small steam cranes mounted onto the tower itself.

The assembly of the first level was achieved by the use of twelve temporary wooden scaffolds, 30 metres high, and four larger scaffolds of 40 metres each.

A gigantic meccano set masque photo
A gigantic meccano set
Construction of a pillar masque photo
Construction of a pillar
Fondations of the Eiffel Tower masque photo
Fondations of the Eiffel Tower

"Sand boxes" and hydraulic jacks - replaced after use by permanent wedges - allowed the metal girders to be positioned to an accuracy of one millimetre.

On December 7, 1887, the joining of the major girders up to the first level was completed. The pieces were hauled up by steam cranes, which themselves climbed up the Tower as they went along using the runners to be used for the Tower's lifts.

It only took five months to build the foundations and twenty-one to finish assembling the metal pieces of the Tower. The construction steps of the Eiffel Tower

Considering the rudimentary means available at that period, this could be considered record speed. The assembly of the Tower was a marvel of precision, as all chroniclers of the period agree. The construction work began in January 1887 and was finished on March 31, 1889. On the narrow platform at the top, Eiffel received his decoration from the Legion of Honour.

Journalist Emile Goudeau describes the spectacle visiting the construction site at the beginning of 1889.

The Eiffel Tower's workers masque photo
The Eiffel Tower's workers

"A thick cloud of tar and coal smoke seized the throat, and we were deafened by the din of metal screaming beneath the hammer. Over there they were still working on the bolts: workmen with their iron bludgeons, perched on a ledge just a few centimetres wide, took turns at striking the bolts (these in fact were the rivets). One could have taken them for blacksmiths contentedly beating out a rhythm on an anvil in some village forge, except that these smiths were not striking up and down vertically, but horizontally, and as with each blow came a shower of sparks, these black figures, appearing larger than life against the background of the open sky, looked as if they were reaping lightning bolts in the clouds."

element graphique

The Construction Schedule

  • The construction work took 2 years, 2 months and 5 days.
  • The first floor was finished on the 1st April 1888
  • The second floor was finished on the 14th August 1888.
  • The assembly was completed once and for all, with the top, on the 31st March 1889.

A Few Figures

  • 18,038 metallic parts
  • 5,300 workshop designs
  • 50 engineers and designers
  • 150 workers in the Levallois-Perret factory
  • Between 150 and 300 workers on the construction site
  • 2,500,000 rivets
  • 7,300 tonnes of iron
  • 60 tonnes of paint
  • 2 years, 2 months and 5 days of construction
  • 5 lifts.
element graphique

Mr. Eiffel’s Blueprints

The following blueprints are copies of Gustave Eiffel’s originals, taken from the book La Tour de 300 mètres, Ed. Lemercier, Paris 1900
Click to enlarge boards

Metallic skeleton, separators, bracings and bases masque photo
Metallic skeleton, separators, bracings and bases
Lifts - Reservoirs - Drainage masque photo
Lifts - Reservoirs - Drainage
Sections of rafters & wire-meshes masque photo
Sections of rafters & wire-meshes
Elevations, diagrams, location at the Exposition masque photo
Elevations, diagrams, location at the Exposition
Upper section. Ensemble and details masque photo
Upper section. Ensemble and details
Set of blueprints for all the different floors masque photo
Set of blueprints for all the different floors
Masonry for Pillar 3 (South) masque photo
Masonry for Pillar 3 (South)
Lower rafters masque photo
Lower rafters
Inclination of one of the first 4 panels masque photo
Inclination of one of the first 4 panels
Gussets masque photo
Foot masque photo
Detail of the structure of the decorative beams masque photo
Detail of the structure of the decorative beams
Development of the ground floor at Pillar 1 (North) masque photo
Development of the ground floor at Pillar 1 (North)
Detail of the top structure masque photo
Detail of the top structure
Vertical cross-section of the top masque photo
Vertical cross-section of the top
Detail of the structure of the 2nd floor masque photo
Detail of the structure of the 2nd floor