December is the anniversary month for both the birth and death of Gustave Eiffel, best known for the tower in Paris that bears his name and the armature for the Statue of Liberty.
Alexandre Gustave Eiffel was born Dec. 15, 1832, in Dijon, Côte-d’Or, France. He was a descendant of the Bönickhausen family who had emigrated from Western Germany and settled in Paris at the beginning of the 18th century. They adopted the name Eiffel as a reference to the Eifel mountain range in the region from which they had come. Although the family always used the name Eiffel, Gustave’s name was registered at birth as Bönickhausen and was not formally changed to Eiffel until 1880.
Gustave Eiffel attended the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in Paris where he studied chemistry, receiving the equivalent of a Master of Science degree in 1855. In 1858, at 25, Eiffel was given the responsibility of overseeing the construction of a 1,600-foot bridge of cast iron spanning the Garonne River near the city of Bordeaux, which he completed in just two years. Eiffel’s reputation continued to grow with his portfolio of projects, which included prefabricated campaign bridges for the military, the Bon Marché department store in Paris, iron framing for the cathedral of Notre-Dame, and the Statue of Liberty.
In 1889, Eiffel’s vast experience and innovative methods culminated in the construction of his famous tower on the Champs de Mars. The Eiffel Tower was the focal point of the Exposition Universelle (1889) and drew millions of people to Paris. Although originally thought of as an eyesore, the tower quickly became a tourist attraction and a national symbol of France. At 1,063 feet (324 meters) tall, it was the tallest structure in the world until 1930, when it was surpassed by the Chrysler Building in New York City.
Eiffel’s greatest success would also be his last major structure to be built. In 1887, Eiffel’s company had begun to design and build the patented locks that were to be used in the Panama Canal project. Less than a year later, the company that hired him went bankrupt and the project was halted. For the next five years, an investigation was conducted into the bankruptcy, which had wiped out the savings of hundreds of thousands of French investors. Eiffel was accused of misusing funds, and for several years, he invested much of his money and energy into fighting the charges. He was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing, but in 1893 Eiffel resigned as chairman of the board of his company.
Eiffel’s lesser known building- and structural-design projects include a Toulouse, France railway station; Théâtre les Folies, Paris; La Paz Gasworks, Bolivia; Ruhnu Island Lighthouse, Estonia; Nice Observatory, Nice, France; Grand Hotel Traian, Iaşi, Romania; Konak Pier, Izmir, Turkey; Catedral de Santa María, Chiclayo, Peru; Combier Distillery, Loire Valley, France; and the Monte Cristi Clock Tower, Dominican Republic. Eiffel’s accomplishments also include more than two dozen bridges and viaducts in Europe and South America.
After 1893, Eiffel researched and developed new ideas through practical use of the Eiffel Tower. The tower enabled him to make advancements in aerodynamics, meteorology, and radio broadcasting. He built a wind tunnel at the base of the tower for aerodynamic research, had meteorological equipment placed in various locations on the tower, and suggested to the military to have radio equipment installed on the top of the tower. In the following years the tower would continue to serve as a permanent radio tower and eventually was used for television broadcasting.
Eiffel died Dec. 27, 1923, in his mansion on Rue Rabelais in Paris, France, and was interred in the Cimetière de Levallois-Perret. The Eiffel Tower was dedicated as an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1986.