1832 – 1923
''A diabolic undertaking of a boilermaker with delusions of grandeur!'' proclaimed author Guy de Maupassant upon seeing the 300-meter tower of Paris for the first time. The "boilermaker " he was referring to was Gustave Eiffel, and the diabolic undertaking was none other than the tower that bears his name. Because of the sheer magnitude of the Eiffel Tower - the Washington Monument in comparison is less than one-sixth as tall - Eiffel's other accomplishments have been overshadowed by the structure, and his important bridge and building projects, as well as his interest in meteorology and aerodynamics, are easily overlooked.
Born into a family of master weavers on December 15, 1832, Eiffel spent his childhood in Dijon, the quiet capital of Burgundy. As a boy Eiffel was influenced by his mother's brother and specialized in chemistry at Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in the hopes that he might one day take over his uncle's vinegar factory. But a falling out over inheritance rights forced Eiffel to find a new direction, and with the help of his brother-in-law his thoughts turned to metallurgy. By 1856 Eiffel felt confident enough to take his new skills to Paris, where he contacted Charles Nepveu, a railway construction engineer, and became his private secretary. In 1858 Nepveu was commissioned to build the Bordeaux Bridge, which would link up two prominent railroad companies. He entrusted the execution of the project to Eiffel. Eiffel designed and oversaw the construction, and his work so impressed his colleagues that a series of bridge contracts quickly followed.
In 1866 Eiffel went into business for himself, specializing in all types of metal construction. His two most important contracts to that dates were both negotiated in 1875: the train station at Pest in Hungary and the bridge over the Douro in Portugal. The Budapest station covered a massive area of 13,000 meters and is one of the earliest examples of the combined use of metal and masonry. The Douro Bridge, his most famous bridge other than the Garabit Viaduct, included a record span of 160 meters. By the Universal Exhibition of 1878 the Eiffel Company had established itself as one of the major French metal construction companies.
The engineer's growing reputation encouraged Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi to employ Eiffel to construct the inner framework for his masterwork, the Statue of Liberty. Eiffel designed a metal structure that supported the 100 tons of copper plate in the forceful winds of New York Bay. Though the statue appears to have broken from earlier work, Eiffel insisted that the Statue was nothing more than a large metal pier calculated to resist wind stresses. In 1886 the French government held a competition to design a tower that would serve as the main attraction for the 1889 Paris World's Fair. Eiffel's winning design was one of 700 submitted. To provide a sense of magnitude of the undertaking, next to his blueprint of the tower Eiffel drew Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Statue of Liberty, the Arc de Triomphe, three identical Columns from the Place Vendome, and a six-story building stacked one on top of the other. For Eiffel, the tower symbolized the century of industry and science, and would be a useful resource for meteorologist and cartographers. Constructing such a tower met with its own unique set of engineering challenges. After 15 meters ordinary hoisting gins could no longer be used, so moveable cranes, pyramidal scaffolds, and elevators had to be employed creatively to get men and material ever higher.
On March 31, 1889, the tricolore of France was hoisted on top of the tower's lightning conductor. At the height of his fame Eiffel's name was tainted by scandal. The Eiffel Company agreed to construct 10 locks for the proposed Panama Canal at the generous sum of 125 million francs. When the Panama Company folded, Eiffel became involved in the political fallout that ensued. Though in the end Eiffel was acknowledged as being blameless, the affair took its toll. Eiffel retired from engineering and turned his attention to meteorology and aerodynamics, constructing some of the first wind tunnels and publishing on the effects of wind resistance on metal structures well into his eighties.