Gustave Eiffel and his collaborators during the building of the Eiffel Tower

Gustave Eiffel and his collaborators

Wednesday 2 October 2019

Modified the 02/10/19

Gustave Eiffel was not only an unparalleled engineer. He was also a brilliant entrepreneur from a young age. His ability to surround himself with talented colleagues was a determining factor in the progress of his life’s work. By Bertrand Lemoine.

From the very beginnings of his work building metal frameworks in 1864, when he was in his thirties, Gustave Eiffel decided to start exporting prefabricated structures. He was seconded by his right-hand man, Hector Lelièvre. They met when they worked together on the Bordeaux bridge. Following an aborted attempt in Egypt, he turned his attention to South America in 1871, and more specifically to Peru and Chile. At the time, these countries were experiencing a wave of development and had an urgent need to import buildings and bridges to meet their needs quickly. Mr. Eiffel did not go himself, but delegated the travel to his associate, in whom he had complete confidence. Lelièvre successfully developed their work in these countries, building the Callao Customs Office and various other metal constructions. Unfortunately, Hector Lelièvre’s early death in 1873 put an end to the South American adventure. 

Théophile Seyrig, who provided the Maria Pia bridge tender

Gustave Eiffel continued to develop his business successfully, but concentrated on France and a few European countries. As work poured in, he had to strengthen both his production tools and his teams. He succeeded in both through Théophile Seyrig, a brilliant engineer ten years younger than himself, who was valedictorian of his class at École Centrale, the same grande école Eiffel attended. In addition to his technical skill, Seyrig also injected capital into the business. Their association was formalized in 1868 by a contract renewed five years later. Eiffel brought to the table the active assets of his business and foreseen profits, reserving for himself exclusive management of the company with signatory rights delegated to Hector Lelièvre. Théophile Seyrig could only ask for employee status in the company,  but his contribution was nonetheless decisive. Notably, thanks to him, the company won the tender for the Maria Pia bridge in Porto based on the extremely innovative idea he proposed in 1875 for a double-hinged arch. Four years later, Eiffel was approached to build the Gabarit viaduct on the same model as the Porto bridge. Logically, Seyrig wanted his part of the profits, but Eiffel refused and broke the contract between them. Seyrig left the company and went to work for the Belgians Willebroeck et Cie, where he gained renown for building the Dom-Luis viaduct in Porto. Despite a long series of legal proceedings, Seyrig never received compensation.

Viaduc de Garabit
Viaduc de Garabit - © Collection Tour Eiffel

Nouguier, Compagnon and Koechlin: the actors of the Tower project

During construction of the Maria Pia viaduct in 1876, Gustave Eiffel recruited two collaborators who would be key to the company’s evolution. He poached, from a competitor named Ernest Gouin, the engineer Émile Nouguier, specialist in technical assessment and mounting metallic structures, as well as Jean Compagnon, a very experienced master assembler of metal frameworks. Both men would participate in all of the company’s subsequent constructions, including the Tower, for which the former provided the idea and the latter oversaw the work. After falling out with Théophile Seyrig, Mr. Eiffel hired, in 1879, a 23-year-old engineer who had just graduated from the Zurich Polytechnicum to do the calculations for the Gabarit viaduct. This was Maurice Koechlin, who would contribute to the business for the rest of its long course. He co-signed the Eiffel Tower project, performing the calculations, and managed the company after Gustave Eiffel retired.

The care and judgement Eiffel demonstrated in his choice of collaborators was one his great entrepreneurial skills and confirms the collective dimension of his building accomplishments. 
 

Bertrand Lemoine is an architect, engineer and historian. He was a research director at the CNRS and general manager of the Atelier International du Grand Paris. He is an internationally recognized specialist in the history and current events of architecture, construction, the city and heritage in the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly in Paris, Greater Paris and the Eiffel Tower. He is the author of forty-three books and several hundred articles on these subjects. He is currently a consultant on architectural, urban, digital and energy issues.

Photo Bertrand Lemoine

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