December 15, 2012
Gustave Bönickhausen was born in Dijon, France, on Dec. 15, 1832, he officially changed his name to Eiffel in 1880, after the Eifel mountains near his family’s ancestral home in Marmagen, Germany; the family had used the Eiffel name unofficially for several decades.
Eiffel was an indifferent student, but he thrived in the applied knowledge he gained from his uncle’s chemical works near Dijon. His grades were insufficient for the prestigious École Polytechnique, and he graduated in 1855 from the more career-oriented École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures, where he studied engineering and chemistry.
A family falling-out prevented Eiffel from getting the position he wanted at his uncle’s chemical plant, and he had to take a job as an unpaid assistant to his brother-in-law, a foundry manager. Eiffel finally found a paying job with a railway company, and designed his first bridge, a 72-foot sheet iron bridge on the Saint Germaine railway.
He helped design and build several more railway bridges for the Compagnie Belge de Matériels de Chemin de Fer, and in 1860 was named principal engineer, building a reputation as an innovator in construction techniques and an adherent to design process and accuracy.
In 1865, he left the railroad company and started working as an independent consulting engineer, advising on construction projects. Within a year, he had accumulated enough capital and borrowings to open his own workshops, located in the suburbs of Paris. In addition to designing and building projects in France, Eiffel got contracts in other countries, including a church in Arica, Chile, which he designed and manufactured as a pre-fabricated metal building in France and shipped it to Chile to be erected.
In 1868, he formed Eiffel & Cie with Théophile Seyrig. Their success was cemented with two projects, a complicated bridge over the Douro River in Portugal and an innovative railway station in Budapest. The 1878 Paris World’s Fair showcased Eiffel & Cie’s engineering and design capabilities, alongside inventions and demonstrations from Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. Also on display at the World’s Fair was Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s design, and the completed head, of The Statute of Liberty.
Three years later, Bartholdi hired Eiffel to complete the engineering design; Eiffel designed a central pylon to support the copper plates that form the skin of the statute. The statue was erected at his works, dismantled and shipped to the U.S. In 1886, Eiffel was hired to design the dome for Charles Garnier’s Astronomical Observatory in Nice; the dome was the largest in the world and used a unique mechanism to rotate the direction of its aperture.
Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier conceived a dramatic centerpiece for the 1889 Paris World’s Fair. When they approached Eiffel in 1884 for his support, he was unenthusiastic, but assigned two of his engineers to study the project. Their enhancements got Eiffel’s attention and he bought the patents and design, and began building support for the idea of a massive centerpiece at the fair.
He described his enthusiasm for his tower in an 1885 speech, “… not only the art of the modern engineer, but also the century of Industry and Science in which we are living, and for which the way was prepared by the great scientific movement of the eighteenth century and by the Revolution of 1789, to which this monument will be built as an expression of France's gratitude."
The tower cost about 6.5 million francs to build; Eiffel was paid 1.5 million francs and given all the proceeds from visitors for 20 years. The tower received significant criticism from engineers and artists.
While working on the tower, Eiffel’s company was also hired to build the locks for the Panama Canal, after the French Panama Canal Company determined that a sea-level canal could not be built. Eiffel became embroiled in the collapse of the company, and was convicted in 1893 for misuse of funds. Before the trial began, he resigned from his company, saying he no longer wished to be involved in manufacturing. He was acquitted of the charges on appeal.
After leaving his company, Eiffel began research and experiments in meteorology and aerodynamics; he built a wind tunnel and contributed significantly to the fields.
He died on Dec. 27, 1923, in Paris.