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Pioneers in Engineering

Alexandre Eiffel

By Marc Farrell

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel was born in Dijon, France in 1832. A diligent and very promising student with an amazing understanding of math and science, Eiffel studied at the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures, and upon graduation became actively involved in the design and building of French railways, viaducts and bridges. Eiffel is best known for his architectural genius behind two of the world’s most historic and visible landmarks: the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty.

In 1885, Eiffel began work on the Statue of Liberty, which was given to the United States as a gift from France, as a symbol of international friendship and the vision of freedom shared by the two countries. He was responsible for the design of the wrought-iron skeleton used to support the inside of the statue. He also supervised the raising of the statue, calculated how much pressure would be put on each joint, and determined the structure’s weight distribution. He advised the assembly of various pieces of “Lady Liberty” to maximize safety and the life of the statue. His methods were very economical and helped pave the way for modern skyscrapers.

Eiffel is best known for the ultimate manifestation of his immense talent -- the Eiffel Tower -- which is said to be as much a symbol of love and romance as a display of engineering genius. The tower was built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution at the Centennial Exposition (World Fair) in 1889. Eiffel’s proposal was selected from among over 700 others and construction commenced in 1887. As a result of careful design and construction, the tower was completed without the need for corrections.

His extraordinary abilities were again on display as he calculated the distance between the 2.5 million rivets in the tower within one-tenth of a millimeter and made the structure strong enough to withstand the force of high winds. Upon completion in 1889, the tower was the tallest structure in the world at 984 feet, and so perfect that the Scientific American issue of June 15, 1889 stated that it was “without error, without accident, and without delay.” He would later add a meteorological station, a military telegraph, and an aerodynamics laboratory to the tower.

Though his ideas were rejected at the time, he was also the first man to propose the construction of a tunnel under the English Channel, as well as an underground rail system in Paris. After his withdrawal from commercial life, he spent the rest of his time studying aerodynamics. However, when he died in 1927 at his mansion in Paris, Eiffel had already firmly secured his place as one of the most brilliant and influential architects of our time.

This series spotlights the works of notable scientists to provide insight into the people and history behind engineering. Articles are written by eligibles of the Massachusetts chapter of Tau Beta Pi.