The Eiffel Tower, like the London Eye, was intended to have a limited life.
The most memorable creation of the prolific engineer Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923) was devised as the centrepiece of the 1889 Exposition Universelle, marking the centenary of the start of the French Revolution.
Eiffel was not at first interested in the proposal of its initiators, his colleagues Maurice Koechlin and Émile Nouguier. He rose to the challenge because his experience of working with wrought iron in structural engineering made him the pre-eminent specialist in his field: no contemporary could have accomplished so elegant a solution.
Eiffel had made his name as a bridge-builder – in particular for the magnificent Maria Pia Bridge (1876-7, 353 metres high) in Portugal, and the Garabit Viaduct, (1882-5, 565 metres high), in the French Massif Central. Both are higher than the Eiffel Tower, which was ultimately 324 metres high, and both consist of an elegant arch which supports piers carrying the deck.
The Tower’s appearance challenged the traditionalists – Guy de Maupassant took to eating in its restaurant, declaring it was the only place in Paris where he couldn’t see it – but Eiffel insisted its daring design had its own aesthetic, “Do not the laws of natural forces always conform to the secret laws of harmony?”.
More importantly, Eiffel intended it to be useful for scientific experiments, some of which he carried out from a private apartment at the top. After the exhibition and his subsequent withdrawal from engineering work, he conducted experiments in aerodynamics, set up a meteorological station and encouraged its use as a communications tower.
When Eiffel’s licence to operate the tower ran out in 1909 the City of Paris intended to dismantle it, but its value as a mast in the early days of wireless telegraphy, later known as radio, along with its status as an emblem ensured its survival.
It proved almost immediately useful in the First World War to jam the radio signals of the German army advancing on France.
In the Second World War French partisans made sure it was practically useless to the Nazis by cutting the lift-cables.
It is still used as the primary transmitter of digital radio and TV in the Paris region, and is the most visited paid monument in the world. More than 650 million visitors have taken the vertiginous ride to at least one of the three levels.