Portrait: Gustave Eiffel, a French civil engineer

Wednesday, 24 April 2024 - 11:00 am (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: Paris / Île-de-France, Portrait
Reading Time:  11 minutes

Eiffel Tower and La Defense from the Tour Montparnasse © Wladyslaw - Taxiarchos228/cc-by-3.0

Eiffel Tower and La Defense from the Tour Montparnasse, Paris, France © Wladyslaw – Taxiarchos228/cc-by-3.0

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (: Bonickhausen dit Eiffel) was a French civil engineer. A graduate of École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures, he made his name with various bridges for the French railway network, most famously the Garabit Viaduct. He is best known for the world-famous Eiffel Tower, designed by his company and built for the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris, and his contribution to building the Statue of Liberty in New York. After his retirement from engineering, Eiffel focused on research into meteorology and aerodynamics, making significant contributions in both fields.

After graduation, Eiffel had hoped to find work in his uncle’s workshop in Dijon, but a family dispute made this impossible. After a few months working as an unpaid assistant to his brother-in-law, who managed a foundry, Eiffel approached the railway engineer Charles Nepveu, who gave Eiffel his first paid job as his private secretary. However, shortly afterwards Nepveu’s company went bankrupt, Nepveu found Eiffel a job designing a 22 m (72 ft) sheet iron bridge for the Saint Germaine railway. Some of Nepveu’s businesses were then acquired by the Compagnie Belge de Matériels de Chemin de Fer: Nepveu was appointed the managing director of the two factories in Paris, and offered Eiffel a job as head of the research department. In 1857 Nepveu negotiated a contract to build a railway bridge over the river Garonne at Bordeaux, connecting the Paris-Bordeaux line to the lines running to Sète and Bayonne, which involved the construction of a 500 m (1,600 ft) iron girder bridge supported by six pairs of masonry piers on the river bed. These were constructed with the aid of compressed air caissons and hydraulic rams, both innovative techniques at the time. Eiffel was initially given the responsibility of assembling the metalwork and eventually took over the management of the entire project from Nepveu, who resigned in March 1860.

Following the completion of the project on schedule Eiffel was appointed as the principal engineer of the Compagnie Belge. His work had also gained the attention of several people who were later to give him work, including Stanislas de la Roche Toulay, who had prepared the design for the metalwork of the Bordeaux bridge, Jean Baptiste Krantz and Wilhelm Nordling. Further promotion within the company followed, but the business began to decline, and in 1865 Eiffel, seeing no future there, resigned and set up as an independent consulting engineer. He was already working independently on the construction of two railway stations, at Toulouse and Agen, and in 1866 he was given a contract to oversee the construction of 33 locomotives for the Egyptian government, a profitable but undemanding job in the course of which he visited Egypt, where he visited the Suez Canal which was being constructed by Ferdinand de Lesseps. At the same time he was employed by Jean-Baptiste Kranz to assist him in the design of the exhibition hall for the Exposition Universelle which was to be held in 1867. Eiffel’s principal job was to draw up the arch girders of the Galerie des Machines. In order to carry out this work, Eiffel and Henri Treca, the director of the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers, conducted valuable research on the structural properties of cast iron, definitively establishing the modulus of elasticity applicable to compound castings.

At the end of 1866 Eiffel managed to borrow enough money to set up his own workshops at 48 Rue Fouquet in Levallois-Perret. His first important commission was for two viaducts for the railway line between Lyon and Bordeaux, and the company also began to undertake work in other countries, including St. Mark’s Cathedral in Arica, Peru, which was an all-metal prefabricated building, manufactured in France and shipped to South America in pieces to be assembled on site; first it was intended for the city of Ancón, a beach near Lima, but the Peruvian Government of President José Balta changed the final destination to Arica because the old church was destroyed by an earthquake on 13 August 1868. Because of this, a committee of ladies of Arica asked Balta to relocate Eiffel’s structure to Arica.

On 6 October 1868 he entered into partnership with Théophile Seyrig, a fellow graduate of the École Centrale, forming the company Eiffel et Cie. In 1875, Eiffel et Cie were given two important contracts, one for the Budapest Nyugati railway station for the Vienna to Budapest railway and the other for a bridge over the river Douro in Portugal. The station in Budapest was an innovative design. The usual pattern for building a railway terminus was to conceal the metal structure behind an elaborate facade: Eiffel’s design for Budapest used the metal structure as the centerpiece of the building, flanked on either side by conventional stone and brick-clad structures housing administrative offices.

Statue of Liberty in New York City © Derek Jensen Budapest Nyugati railway station © Herbert Ortner/cc-by-2.5 Eiffel Tower and La Defense from the Tour Montparnasse © Wladyslaw - Taxiarchos228/cc-by-3.0 Gustave Eiffel in 1888 by Félix Nadar © gettyimages.co.uk Gustave Eiffel in 1910 © Agence de presse Meurisse - Bibliotheque nationale de France Konak Pier in İzmir © BSRF/cc-by-sa-4.0 La Paz bus station © Elemaki/cc-by-3.0 Maria Pia Bridge in Porto © Joseolgon
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Eiffel Tower and La Defense from the Tour Montparnasse © Wladyslaw - Taxiarchos228/cc-by-3.0
The bridge over the Douro came about as the result of a competition held by the Royal Portuguese Railroad Company. The task was a demanding one: the river was fast-flowing, up to 20 m (66 ft) deep, and had a bed formed of a deep layer of gravel which made the construction of piers on the river bed impossible, and so the bridge had to have a central span of 160 m (520 ft). This was greater than the longest arch span which had been built at the time. Eiffel’s proposal was for a bridge whose deck was supported by five iron piers, with the abutments of the pair on the river bank also bearing a central supporting arch. The price quoted by Eiffel was FF.965,000, far below the nearest competitor and so he was given the job, although since his company was less experienced than his rivals the Portuguese authorities appointed a committee to report on Eiffel et Cie’s suitability. The members included Jean-Baptiste Krantz, Henri Dion and Léon Molinos, both of whom had known Eiffel for a long time: their report was favorable, and Eiffel got the job. On-site work began in January 1876 and was complete by the end of October 1877: the bridge was ceremonially opened by King Luís I and Queen Maria Pia, after whom the bridge was named, on 4 November.

The Exposition Universelle in 1878 firmly established his reputation as one of the leading engineers of the time. As well as exhibiting models and drawings of work undertaken by the company, Eiffel was also responsible for the construction of several of the exhibition buildings. One of these, a pavilion for the Paris Gas Company, was Eiffel’s first collaboration with Stephen Sauvestre, who was later to become the head of the company’s architectural office.

In 1879 the partnership with Seyrig was dissolved, and the company was renamed the Compagnie des Établissements Eiffel. The same year the company was given the contract for the Garabit viaduct, a railway bridge near Ruynes en Margeride in the Cantal département. Like the Douro bridge, the project involved a lengthy viaduct crossing the river valley as well as the river itself, and Eiffel was given the job without any process of competitive tendering due to his success with the bridge over the Douro. To assist him in the work he took on several people who were to play important roles in the design and construction of the Eiffel Tower, including Maurice Koechlin, a young graduate of the Zurich Polytechnikum, who was engaged to undertake calculations and make drawings, and Émile Nouguier, who had previously worked for Eiffel on the construction of the Douro bridge.

The same year Eiffel started work on a system of standardised prefabricated bridges, an idea that was the result of a conversation with the governor of Cochin-China. These used a small number of standard components, all small enough to be readily transportable in areas with poor or non-existent roads, and were joined using bolts rather than rivets, reducing the need for skilled labour on site. A number of different types were produced, ranging from footbridges to standard-gauge railway bridges.

In 1881 Eiffel was contacted by Auguste Bartholdi who was in need of an engineer to help him to realise the Statue of Liberty. Some work had already been carried out by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, but he had died in 1879. Eiffel was selected because of his experience with wind stresses. Eiffel devised a structure consisting of a four legged pylon to support the copper sheeting which made up the body of the statue. The entire statue was erected at the Eiffel works in Paris before being dismantled and shipped to the United States.

In 1886 Eiffel also designed the dome for the Astronomical Observatory in Nice. This was the most important building in a complex designed by Charles Garnier, later among the most prominent critics of the Tower. The dome, with a diameter of 22.4 m (73 ft), was the largest in the world when built and used an ingenious bearing device: rather than running on wheels or rollers, it was supported by a ring-shaped hollow girder floating in a circular trough containing a solution of magnesium chloride in water. This had been patented by Eiffel in 1881.

Read more on Wikipedia Gustave Eiffel (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State - Weather report by weather.com - Global Passport Power Rank - Travel Risk Map - Democracy Index - GDP according to IMF, UN, and World Bank - Global Competitiveness Report - Corruption Perceptions Index - Press Freedom Index - World Justice Project - Rule of Law Index - UN Human Development Index - Global Peace Index - Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.




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