It’s July 14th, 1789, and an angry mob is marching through the streets of Paris.
Among the crowd is a young peasant laborer. Like the rest of the people here, this laborer has grown dissatisfied with the political system in France: a monarchical system, in which the bourgeoisie enjoys a life of luxury, while the working class can barely afford to feed their families. Starving and desperate, the laborer and his fellow workers flood the streets, armed with pitchforks and torches, to take a stand against the monarchy.
Up ahead, the laborer sees the stone walls of the Bastille – the notorious prison where people who speak out against the monarchy are kept. This is where the mob is headed. The very sight of the Bastille’s towering battlements fills the young laborer with anger. He raises his pitchfork… and charges.
Despite the threat of cannons mounted atop the battlements, the laborer joins a small party who fearlessly vault over the outer wall, scramble across the narrow moat, and rush up to the gates.
The laborer and the rest of the party repeatedly strike at the wrought-iron chains of the drawbridge until eventually… they break it, and the drawbridge comes crashing down across the moat.
Bastille is now defenseless against the mob. And as they rush in, they bring with them the spirit of revolution.
The Storming of the Bastille, as this event is known, represents the climactic high point of the French Revolution, in which peasants and workers rose up against the ruling elites and established France as a republic. The events that shook the nation in 1787 will become the founding myth of modern France, free from the shackles of monarchy and galvanized by the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
One hundred years after the French Revolution, a monument will be displayed in Paris as a testament to everything France has achieved during its first century as a republic. And though this monument, the Eiffel Tower, is beloved today, in its time, it was a source of acrimony and bitter disagreement prior to its official inauguration which took place on March 31st, 1889.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is March 31st: The Inauguration of the Eiffel Tower.
Act One: Size Matters
It’s May 1884, five years before the Eiffel Tower opens.
A 28-year-old engineer sits at home in Paris, France, sketching designs for a proposed city monument. In the warm glow of a gas lamp, Maurice Koechlin is outlining plans for what will eventually become the tallest manmade structure on earth.
But at this early stage, Maurice doubts whether it will even be possible. Alongside the design for the proposed monument, he sketches scale drawings of other famous landmarks – the Statue of Liberty, the Arc de Triomphe, the Cathedral of Notre Dame. But the monument Maurice is designing will dwarf these other structures, standing over 300 meters tall.
Maurice wonders if a structure standing this high can withstand the wind it will face. He worries it will be too expensive or require too much raw material. As Maurice thinks about these potential problems, he continues drawing. And by the time he’s finished, he’s come up with a plan for a 1000-foot tower, describing it as: “four lattice girders standing apart at the base, and coming together at the top, joined together by metal trusses at regular intervals.”
Maurice carries out a few quick mental calculations and realizes – with mounting excitement – that his design solves some of the potential problems he was worrying about: the wrought iron will be lighter and cheaper than stone. The curved uprights and lattice structure will decrease wind resistance. Maurice titles his bold design “The Great Pylon.”
The following morning, Maurice and another engineer, Emile Nouguier, show the design to their boss, a man in his early fifties named Gustave Eiffel. Maurice and Emile work for Gustave’s architectural firm – which specializes in railway bridges and metal viaducts. Gustave has a good reputation as one of France’s leading civil engineers, but to his mind, he’s not yet secured his architectural legacy. Bridges and viaducts are one thing, but to have his name forever attached to a great monument – well, that’s how legends are born.
So in 1884, when the French government launched a contest to design a centerpiece for the upcoming World’s Fair in Paris, Gustave saw an opportunity. He decided to submit a proposal, ordering his team of engineers to get to work on a design at once.
The World’s Fair is an international exhibition held to showcase a nation’s industry, technology, and culture. Since the first exhibition held in Prague in 1791, World’s Fairs have displayed dazzling technological inventions across the globe in cities like New York, London, Barcelona, and Chicago.
The 1889 World’s Fair is of particular significance to the French hosts. It’s the one-hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution – when the people of France rose up against the ruling elites, toppled the monarchy, and established France as a republic.
A century later, the French government wants to showcase how far the nation has come since throwing off the shackles of monarchy; how it has flourished and grown into one of the world’s leading industrial powerhouses.
France’s president at this time, Jules Grévy, wants the 1889 World’s Fair to be the grandest spectacle yet. For Grévy, a mere showcase of French inventions and feats of mechanical engineering isn’t enough. He wants a centerpiece that will be the envy of the world; a piece de resistance that will loom over the proceedings, remind the millions of visitors to the Fair about France’s artistic and industrial capabilities.
Immediately after Grévy launched this competition, architectural companies around the country began developing their ideas for the monument. The only requirements were that the structure had to reflect France’s engineering prowess, and it had to be easily dismantled twenty years after the World’s Fair.
Maurice and Emile think they've hit these objectives and nervously slide their design across Gustave Eiffel’s desk. But Gustave looks at the “Great Pylon” with confusion. His lip curls contemptuously as he asks: “what on earth is this?”. Maurice tries to explain, but Gustave isn’t interested in discussion. He’s seen all he needs to see of this strange, unorthodox structure. He dismisses the two engineers, who slope off despondently.
But during the course of the day, Gustave keeps glancing down at the drawing. There’s something about this unique design that compels and intrigues him. By the end of the afternoon, Gustave has changed his mind. He calls Maurice and Emile back into his office and tells the two young engineers to carry out further study on the methods by which such a structure could feasibly be built.
Several weeks later, the two men present their finished version to Gustave. The engineer is pleased with what he sees. And he quickly buys the rights to the patent. But there’s one thing Gustave isn’t sure about: the name. “The Great Pylon” doesn’t have much of a ring to it, so instead, Gustave renames the monument after himself: the Eiffel Tower.
In the autumn of 1884, the designs for the Eiffel Tower are displayed at an international arts fair, called the Exhibition of Decorative Arts, in Paris. There, the image catches the eye of the French president Jules Grévy, and the minister for trade Édouard Lockroy, who are immediately taken by its sheer, unprecedented size. As Gustave never tires of reminding people: the Eiffel Tower will be the tallest manmade structure ever built.
This is an accolade the French politicians cannot resist. So in the summer of 1885, Gustave’s proposal wins the contest. A construction site is selected on the Champs de Mars – a greenspace in the very center of the city. Work begins two years later, in January of 1887.
Gustave is closer than ever before to securing his legacy. If all goes to plan, he will never have to design another railway bridge or a viaduct ever again. But as the foundations of the Eiffel Tower begin rising from the earth, vocal opposition to the monument will grow, until the tower that sought to celebrate French unity, instead threatens to tear Paris apart.
Act Two: Hateful Shadows
It’s February 14th, 1887, in Paris; two years before the opening of the Eiffel Tower.
Gustave sits in his office reading a newspaper, but he's distracted. His thoughts are consumed by the work happening outside.
On the Champs de Mars in the middle of the city, construction is well underway on the new monument. Metal girders swing from cranes; hundreds of workmen hammer rivets into place, while roaring furnaces belch clouds of black smoke across the sky.
Gustave has plenty of reasons to be happy. Everything’s going according to plan so far. And Gustave knows that’s no small feat.
The conditions of the World’s Fair competition stipulate that the Eiffel Tower is supposed to be deconstructed in 20 years’ time. And as a result, the frame of the structure consists of 18,000 separate pieces of wrought iron, pre-assembled in Gustave’s factory. In order to allow for straightforward disassembly, no component can be drilled or shaped on-site; instead, everything must be bolted together with rivets. It’s a demanding, meticulous process, and one that Gustave is confident will earn him countless accolades, as well as the respect of his fellow engineers.
Still, despite the success of initial construction, Gustave’s spirits are low. Today, he sits in his office reading a copy of the Parisian newspaper Le Temps. The headline explains his sour mood, reading: “Artists against the Eiffel Tower.”
Shortly after construction began on the Tower in January of 1887, 300 prominent writers, artists, and architects formed the so-called “Committee of Three Hundred”, one member for every meter of the Eiffel Tower. Among them were the notable architect Charles Garnier and the famous writer Guy de Maupassant. Today, that Committee has published a letter in Le Temps. As Gustave scans the article, the color slowly drains from his face.
The letter reads, in part: “We writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength against the erection … of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower…"
Alongside the letter is a mocking cartoon of Gustave himself, standing pridefully alongside the Eiffel Tower as it looms domineeringly over the Egyptian pyramids, a commentary on what the Committee members feel is Gustave’s arrogance and vanity. A pit of anger and hurt forms in Gustave’s stomach. His pride is wounded. But rather than ignoring the criticism, he decides to respond.
Gustave feeds a sheet of paper into his typewriter, begins hammering away at the keys, muttering under his breath as he types. He starts: “My tower will be the tallest edifice ever erected by man!” Then he hesitates, aware that perhaps he should strike a less boastful tone. In the letter, Gustave defends his taste, the beauty of his tower, and his architectural and aesthetic choices.
Gustave submits his letter to Le Temps to be published later that week. But as work on the tower continues, the opposition only increases. Nobody has ever built anything of this size before. The mere fact that Gustave is trying makes him, in the eyes of detractors, a lunatic. One headline in the tabloid press reads: “Gustave Eiffel Has Gone Mad!”.
But still, construction continues, and the tower reaches further into the sky. Soon, Parisians can see exactly how prominent the Eiffel Tower will appear on their skyline. And by December 1888, over two-thirds of the structure is built. The sheer size of the tower is a marvel to behold. And soon, much of the earlier vitriol is replaced by awe. One witness describes the workmen hammering rivets into place stating: “with each blow came a shower of sparks as if they were reaping lightning bolts in the clouds.”
On March 31st, after two years, two months, and five days of painstaking work, the Eiffel Tower is at last complete. The final stage was the addition of two elevator cars – capable of carrying sixty-five people at a time. For the grand unveiling, Gustave leads a group of dignitaries to the top. And as he shows them around, he points out the facts of the tower’s construction that it required 73,000 tonnes of iron, 2.5 million rivets, 60 tonnes of paint. The audible gasps of admiration are music to Gustave’s ears.
Then when they reach the top of the tower, Gustave raises a French flag up the pole. Three hundred meters down below, soldiers fire a 21-gun salute, and the assembled crowd of onlookers voice their hearty support for Gustave’s monument.
Two months later, in May, the Eiffel Tower becomes the centerpiece of the World’s Fair; millions of people from around the globe descend on Paris to marvel at French ingenuity. For Gustave, the highlight of the Fair comes when he offers a private tour of the Eiffel Tower to the famous American inventor, Thomas Edison. Edison praises Gustave as “the brave builder” of what he calls a “gigantic and original specimen of modern engineering.”
But despite its increasing popularity, the Eiffel Tower is only meant to remain standing for twenty years. As that milestone approaches, Gustave Eiffel is not ready to say goodbye to his precious creation. Instead, he will fight to ensure the Tower remains and that his legacy is secure.
Act Three: Le Tour Eiffel
It’s November 5th, 1898, nine years after the opening of the Eiffel Tower.
Gustave Eiffel sits in his private office on the top floor. He’s nervous because today might very well decide the fate of the structure that bears his name.
Since its inauguration, most Parisians have grown accustomed to the sight of the Eiffel Tower on their skyline. Still, for Gustave, the Tower is his legacy; the accomplishment for which he will be remembered. And Gustave knows that in 11 years' time, his permit will expire, the Tower will be turned over to the City Council for disassembly… that is unless he can convince the “powers that be” that the Tower has important practical purposes.
Early on, Gustave began searching for a scientific justification for the Tower’s very existence. Eventually, he invited a scientist named Eugene Ducretet to demonstrate that the Tower could be used to advance a burgeoning new technology: the wireless telegraph.
Gustave is nervous because today, Ducretet will conduct a ground-breaking experiment, attempting to carry out the first wireless telegraphy trials between the Eiffel Tower and the Pantheon of Paris, located 2.5 miles away.
But soon, Gustave’s nerves fade when he learns the experiment is a resounding success. The sheer height of the tower allows the signals to flow uninterrupted. And before long, Gustave installs a permanent transmitting station in the Tower. In just a few years' time, the station is able to send transmissions as far as London. Eventually, Gustave offers the Tower’s services to the French Army, which conducts a series of their own consequential experiments.
On January 1st, 1910, persuaded by the Tower’s practical applications, the City Council renews Gustave’s permit, essentially guaranteeing the Eiffel Tower a permanent place on the Paris skyline. Gustave’s persistence, and the City Council’s decision, will pay dividends because, during World War One, the radio station atop the Eiffel Tower will become a vital transmitter of crucial military communications.
And for decades after the war, The Eiffel Tower will remain the world’s tallest building until 1930, when it will be overtaken by the Chrysler Building in New York. Today, the tower once known as “the Great Pylon” attracts 7 million visitors annually, making it the most visited monument in the world. Tourists flock from all corners of the globe to marvel at a structure that was once considered controversial. Today though, it stands as a symbol of - not only French progress - but the brilliance of French engineering, artistry, and originality; the very outcome Gustave Eiffel hoped for when he unveiled his tower on March 31st, 1789.
Next on History Daily.April 1st, 400 BC. The cryptic writings of Plato send one of his pupils on a quest for the truth.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.