Alexandre Gustave Eiffel: Magician of Iron

Gustave Eiffel, the man and the legend. Gustave was a German immigrant to France who went on to become one of France's greatest engineers.
Christopher McFadden

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel was a French master engineer and architect who is also fondly called "the magician of iron". His famous tower that bears his name, has been admired by world leaders and civilians for over a century.

Gustave Eiffel was a graduate of Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in Paris who would later join a company that specialized in the construction of railway bridges.

Gustave Eiffel would later come to master his chosen field and was soon directing bridge construction. He would later form his own company that would become involved in the construction of many bridges around the world. These would include the famous Garabit Viaduct serving the rail network of France.

When it was constructed it was considered the highest bridge in the world. 

Gustave Eiffel would no limit his expertise to France alone. He would export his excellence to many other countries including the United States, Spain, Brazil, Uruguay, Peru, Mexico and Chile among others.

Eiffel was also involved in the construction and design of many buildings and structures around the world.  Notable examples included the  ‘Cathedral of San Pedro de Tacna’, Peru, the ‘Grand Hotel Traian’ in Iaşi, Romania, Konak Pier in İzmir, Turkey and ‘Catedral de Santa María’ in Chiclayo, Peru.

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel: Magician of Iron
Eiffel isn't just famous for his Tower in Paris. Source: G36/Wikimedia commons

One of Gustave's lesser-known projects includes the very famous  Statue of Liberty. And, of course, he is most fondly remembered for his work on the Eiffel Tower in Paris.  

Post-retirement would see Gustave Eiffel devoting the rest of his life to studies in meteorology and aerodynamics until his death in 1923.

Early years

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel was born in Dijon, Burgandy France in 1832. He was the eldest child of Alexandre Bonickhausen dit Eiffel and Catherine-Mélanie. The family was originally immigrants from the German Town of Marmagen who settled in Paris at the beginning of the 18th Century.

The family would adopt the name 'Eiffel' in reference to the Eifel mountains in the region from where they had originally come. Interestingly, however, Gustave was registered at birth as Bönickhausen only to be officially changed to Eiffel in 1880.

Gustave Eiffel's father was an ex-military man who had served in the French Army as an administrator. His mother worked in the charcoal business that she had inherited from her parents. His father would later leave his job to join the business.

As his mother had to look after the business, he spent most of his childhood with his grandmother. Despite this, he would remain close to his mother who would continue to be an influential influence on him until her death in 1878.

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel: Magician of Iron
Rue Vielle, Dijon. Source: Edward/Wikimedia Commons

Gustave Eiffel's mother was the bread-winner

His mother Marie's business would continue to grow from strength to strength. So much so, in fact, that she would sell it in around 1843 to retire on the proceeds.

He would later go on to study at the Lycée Royal in Dijon. Eiffel was not a very studious child, however. He found his studies here boring and a waste of time.

In his last two years, Gustave Eiffel was heavily influenced by his history and literature teachers buck up his ideas. Largely because of their efforts, Eiffel would work hard in his last few years the Lycée Royal to finally earn his baccalauréats in science and humanities.

Another important figure in his early education was his uncle Jean-Baptiste Mollerat and his chemist friend Michel Perret.

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel: Magician of Iron
Source: gustaveeiffel

Gustave Eiffel prepares for college

His uncle had previously invented a process for distilling vinegar and had large chemical works near Dijon. Both men would spend a lot of time with the young Eiffel.

They were both instrumental roles in educating Gustave on varied subjects including philosophy, theology, chemistry, and mining.

Gustave Eiffel would prepare himself for his entrance exams at engineering colleges by joining the ‘Collège Sainte-Barbe’ in Paris. Because of this, he cleared his entrance exams for the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures and École Polytechnique. Both of these institutions were renowned schools in France.

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He would choose to enroll at the ‘École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures’ where he studied chemistry. In 1855, he completed his graduation earning the thirteenth position out of eighty candidates.

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel: Magician of Iron
Source: gustaveeiffel

Postgraduate career

After graduation, Gustave Eiffel had hoped to find work in his uncle's workshop in Dijon. A family dispute made this impossible, sadly.

Gustave worked in a few unpaid jobs for a few months after graduation. This was to assist his brother-in-law at his foundry. His first paid work was a secretary of Charles Nepveu, a railway engineer.

When Nepveu's company went bankrupt, he arranged for a bridge design work for Eiffel that was to be constructed for the Saint Germaine railway.

Compagnie Belge de Matériels de Chemin de Fer, the company that took over a few businesses of Nepveu, made Nepveu the managing director of its two factories and eventually, Eiffel headed the research department.

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel: Magician of Iron
The River Garonne, Bordeaux. Source: Medium69/Wikimedia Commons

Nepveu won a contract for construction of a railway bridge over the river Garonne, Bordeaux in 1857. This bridge was to form part of the Paris to Bordeaux line running to Sete and Bayonne. Gustave Eiffel was tasked with the metalwork assembly for it.The bridge would involve the construction of 500-meter iron girder bridge that was supported by six pairs of masonry piers on the river bed. 

Each pier was to be constructed using compressed air caissons and hydraulic rams. These were both innovative techniques at the time. Later, in March 1860, Eiffel helped manage the entire project after Nepveu resigned. 

Gustave Eiffel decides to settle down

At this time he decides to settle down in Bordeaux and tries to marry. Try being the operative word. He was perceived as a bit of an upstart by the rich local bourgeoisie. His proposals were turned down several times and he called his mother to the rescue.

She was tasked with finding "a neat housewife that won’t pester him too much". His mother, ever the wise woman, made a match with Marie Guadelet who Gustave had met in his youth. In spite of the unusual circumstances, Gustave would grow love Marie dearly. 

In 1862, Eiffel married Marie Gaudelet on the 8th July. The couple would remain married for 15 years until Marie caught pneumonia and died in 1887, The couple had five children together, three girls and two boys, Claire, Laure, Édouard, Valentine, and Albert.

Gustave was so traumatized by her loss that he would never marry again.

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel: Magician of Iron
Gustave Eiffel and his family. Source: allposters

Soon after, Gustave Eiffel was made the chief engineer of ‘Compagnie Belge de Matériels de Chemin de Fer’ and was further promoted. But the business began to decline. Seeing no future in it, he resigned in 1865.

After leaving them, Eiffel began to work independently as a consulting engineer.

Gustave Eiffel goes solo

He would later become involved in the construction of the railway station at Toulouse at Agen. In 1866, Eiffel was awarded a contract to supervise the construction of 33 locomotives for the Egyptian government.

This was a profitable but not very demanding job for Eiffel. He would visit Egypt several times during the project and spent some time viewing the Suez Canal that was being built by Ferdinand de Lesseps.

At around this time, he was also employed by Jean-Baptiste Kranz. Eiffel was to assist him in designing the exhibition hall for the upcoming Exposition Universelle in 1867. His principal role was to draw up the arch girders of the Galerie des Machines.

In order to fulfill this duty Eiffel and Henri Treca, the Director of the  Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers, conducted research into the structural properties of cast iron. Their work would definitively establish the modulus of elasticity applicable to compound castings.

His fame was growing through this period and his reputation as an architect and civil engineer would begin to win him more and more work. At the end of 1866 Eiffel managed to borrow enough money to set up his own workshops at 48 Rue Fouquet in Levallois-Perret.

He also began to undertake projects in different countries. One such project was the all-metal construction church of San Marcos in Arica, Chile. 

Gustave would quickly begin to outclass his competition for the extreme precision of his projects. The level of quality delivered by his workshop was second to none. Parts that were designed and produced were found to be very reliable once assembled on site. He also developed some technical innovations especially in areas like the use of cantilevers and "hurling" of the central span between ridge piles. 

Eiffel forms a partnership

In 1868 he and his partner Theophile Seyrig would found the ‘Eiffel et Cie’ company, that would later receive several important projects.

In 1875, Effiel et Cie won two important contracts. One was a new terminus for the railway line between Vienna and Budapest. The other for a bridge over the river Douro in Portugal. The Budapest terminus was one with a very innovative design, for the time.

The usual pattern for building a railway terminus was to conceal the metal structure behind some form of the elaborate facade. Eiffel, on the other hand, decided to make the metal structure the centerpiece of the building. This was then flanked on either side by conventional stone and brick-clad construction to house the administrative areas.

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel: Magician of Iron
Budapest Terminus. Source: Markv~commonswiki /Wikimedia Commons

Many of Eiffel's projects were exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in 1878. This exhibition would further cement his position as a leading engineer of his day. Models of his work were displayed at the exposition as well as a collection of his drawings for work undertaken by his company. 

Eiffel himself was also involved in building 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.

Eiffel's and Theophile's company would later change its name to Compagnie des Établissements Eiffel as the two parted ways in 1879. That very year, Eiffel's newly named company was awarded a high profile project for the construction of the Garabit Viaduct in France.

Eiffel's flat-packs

In 1879, Gustave Eiffel began work on standardizing prefabricated bridges. This was to become an idea that was the result of a conversation with the governor of Cochin-China. The system would come to develop using a small number of standard components. These all needed to be small enough to be readily transportable. Especially to areas with poor or non-existent roads. 

Each component then needed to be joined together using bolts, rather than rivets, to reduce the need for skilled labor on site. To this end, a number of different types were produced that ranged from footbridges to stand-gauge railway bridges.

1881 also saw Eiffel's recruitment in the creation of the Statue of Liberty that would eventually be gifted to the United States from France.

This bridge, with its completion in 1884, was to be considered the highest bridge in the world at the time. Quite the accolade for Mr. Eiffel.

In 1886, Eiffel designed the iconic dome for the Nice Observatory in Nice, France. This building was the most important in a complex that was designed by Charles Garnier. He would later become a film critic of the Eiffel Tower.

The dome, with a diameter of 22.4 m, was to become the largest in the world when built.  It used an ingenious bearing device: rather than running on wheels or rollers and was supported by a ring-shaped hollow girder floating in a circular trough.

This trough contained a solution of magnesium chloride in water. This had been patented by Eiffel in 1881.

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel: Magician of Iron
The Nice Observatory. Source: Ericd/Wikimedia Commons

The Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower, the most noted masterpiece of Gustave Eiffel would begin in 1887. The first design for the tower was provided by Emile Nouguier and Maurice Koechlin. Their design became the centerpiece of the 1889 Exposition Universelle or World's Fair.

Many regarded its design with skepticism, it was after all very modern. Today it continues to serve an important role in television and radio broadcasting. But it is also considered an architectural wonder that attracts many a paid visitor from around the world.

Its design was to mark the 100th  anniversary of the French Revolution. More than 100 artists were asked to submit proposals for the monument that was to be built on the Champ-de-Mars, Paris. The final monument was intended as the entrance to the expositions entrance.

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel: Magician of Iron
Champ-de-Mars from the Eiffel Tower. Source: Fir0002/Wikimedia Commons

While Gustave Eiffel himself often receives full credit for the monument that bears his name, it was one of his employees—a structural engineer named Maurice Koechlin—who came up with and fine-tuned the concept. Several years earlier, the pair would also collaborate on the Statue of Liberty’s metal armature.

The Tower's construction would consume around 2,500,000 rivets and 18,000 other components, all designed in such a way that when assembled would handle wind pressure. 

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel: Magician of Iron
The Tower as the entrance to the World Fair in 1889. Source: Kuxu76/Wikimedia Commons

The Tower took around two years to complete. It is not only a prominent tourist attraction in France but is also considered a work of art today by the Parisians and critics.

The Tower's construction would later inspire Eiffel to take up a deeper interest in aerodynamics. He would build his own aerodynamic laboratory in 1905 at the base of the tower. In 1909 Eiffel would also build his first ever wind tunnel.

Statue of Liberty

In 1865 the slaughter that was the American Civil war finally came to an end. To celebrate the peace French historian Edouard de Laboulaye proposed that France create a statue to offer as a gift to the bloodied United States. 

So it was in 1876 that the project began. The Statue of Liberty was a joint project between France and the United States. It was built to commemorate the lasting friendship between the two nations. France, after all, was America's first and oldest ally.

The American's would design and build the base whilst the French would design and build the actual statue. This union would become an enduring symbol of the friendship between these two nations.

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel: Magician of Iron
 Source: Biersaufer~commonswiki /Wikimedia Commons

The outer shell was designed and created by Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi. He created the statue's outer surface using sheets of hammered copper. 

In 1881, Alexandre Gustave Eiffel was recruited to design and build the statue's internal steel frame. Bartholdi needed an engineer to help him realize his vision for the final statue. Some work had been carried out by Eugene Viollet-Le-Duc. Sadly he had died in 1879. Eiffel was chosen owing to his extensive experience with wind stresses. 

He devised a four-legged pylon structure that would not only support the copper sheeting but also protect the structure from collapse in high winds. The entire structure was erected at the Eiffel Works in Paris. It was then dismantled and shipped to the U.S.

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel: Magician of Iron
Internal metalwork design for The Statue of Liberty. Source: ¡0-8-15!/Wikimedia commons

The Statue was given to the United States and erected atop an American-designed pedestal on a small island in Upper New York Bay.

This island was dedicated by President Grover Cleveland in 1886

The Panama Canal and disgrace

The idea of building a canal across Panama had undergone a series of disastrous attempts before the 1800's. But this did not dissuade a French effort in the 1880's.

A French team led by Ferdinand de Lesseps broke ground in 1881 in their gambit to build a crossing. Like previous efforts, the project was plagued with poor planning, engineering issues, and tropical diseases. Thousands of laborers met their untimely end.

De Lesseps had planned to complete the project at sea level, thus eliminating the need for locks but the geography and geology of the area proved problematic.

Frustration led to the team recruited Gustave Eiffel to design and create the lock system needed for the canal.

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel: Magician of Iron
Source: Pixabay

The projects great complexity led to it being abandoned and De Lesseps company filing for bankruptcy in 1889. The project had soaked up around $260 million

The ventures failure was a great scandal back in France. De Lesseps, Gustave Eiffel, and other executives were indicted for fraud and mismanagement.

They were all sentenced, but the ruling was later overturned. De Lesseps died in 1894. That same year, a new French company was formed to take over the assets of the bankrupt business and continue the canal; however, this second firm soon abandoned the endeavor as well.

This entire event seriously damaged Gustave Eiffel's reputation and he would spend the rest of career dedicated to scientific research.

Later years

Post-retirement Gustave Eiffel devoted the rest of his life studying meteorology and aerodynamics. Despite his celebrity for engineering and architecture his work in research is often, regrettably forgotten. He was actually very influential in these fields. 

He would even conduct experiments at his famous Tower.

In 1912, he moved his set up from the tower to a new location at Auteuil and established a larger research laboratory there. One of his noted books on aerodynamics among the many he wrote was the highly influential Resistance of the Air and Aviation.

In 1913 Gustave Eiffel was honored by the Smithsonian Institution with the Samuel P. Langley Medal for Aerodromics award.

Gustave Eiffel would die on December the 28th 1923. He passed away peacefully at his mansion on the 'Rue Rabelais' in Paris. He was buried at the Eiffel family tomb in Levallois-Perret Cemetery.