1889 marked a significant anniversary for France: 100 years since the storming of the Bastille, the beginning of the French Revolution, and the establishment of the French Republic. French leaders wanted to combine the commemoration with an event that also celebrated France’s modern industrial, scientific, and cultural successes.
In November 1884, the French government announced that a world’s fair, an Exposition Universelle, would be held in Paris from May 6 – October 31, 1889. The Exposition Grounds would cover nearly a square kilometre and included the Champ de Mars (a large public green space), the Trocadéro (then the site and grounds of a palace by the same name), the quai d’Orsay (an area of land along the Seine riverfront), and part of the Seine and Invalides esplanade.
Government ministers wanted a large, momentous attraction to stand at the entry point to the Exposition. Building a 1,000 foot (300 metre) tall tower was an idea that had been proposed before in Britain and the United States, but it had never actually been done before; a project of that scale would require a Herculean effort. That kind of undertaking was exactly the sort of feat that appealed to the people in charge of the Exposition. On May 2, 1886, the Journal officiel de la République française, a government gazette that publishes major legal or public information from the National Government of France, announced a competition that sought to study “the possibility of erecting an iron tower on the Champs-de-Mars” that would “have a square base” and measure “125 metres on each side and 300 metres high.” French architects and engineers were given two months to submit their proposals for what would be, at the time, the world’s tallest structure. One small catch: the structure was meant to be temporary, and so disassembly would be later required.
The winner of the competition might have been a foregone conclusion, as a tower project was already in the works elsewhere. Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923) was a French civil engineer who, along with the other engineers and designers in his firm (the Compagnie des Établissements Eiffel), were very highly respected for their work building bridges, railroad stations, and other impressive iron structures (Eiffel designed the interior iron frame of the Statue of Liberty, for example). Two of Eiffel’s chief engineers, Emile Nouguier and Maurice Koechlin, came up with an idea for a very tall tower in May 1884. Koechlin made a sketch of their design, describing it as “like a large pylon with four columns of lattice work girders, separated at the base and coming together at the top, and joined to each other by more metal girders at regular intervals.” Eiffel wasn’t very keen in the beginning, but did approve further study on the project. Nouguier and Koechlin asked Stephen Sauvestre, the head of the company’s architectural department, to add some decorative features to their design. Eiffel approved of this new version, and purchased the rights to the patent that Nouguier, Koechlin, and Sauvestre had submitted. Drawings of the design were shown at the Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Paris in the autumn of 1884. In November 1884, the government announced the dates for the Exposition Universelle 1889. Eiffel already had the Exposition in mind when he met with the Société des Ingénieurs Civils on March 30, 1885, and discussed his plans for the tower.
Over 100 blueprints were submitted for the competition. One of the rejected submissions included plans for a giant guillotine—the same device that was used to behead people during the French Revolution. Although appropriate to the occasion being celebrated, I’m thinking it didn’t match the tone that the competition judges were looking for. Another idea included the construction of a giant water sprinkler that could be used to soak Paris during dry spells. Eiffel won the competition handily, as all the other entries were deemed impractical or lacking in detail. It didn’t hurt that the competition was seeking a design that, coincidentally, just happened to share the specific features of a tower that he and his colleagues had been working on for two years already. Why bother with having a competition at all, one might wonder, why didn’t they just hire Eiffel outright? It’s possible that because government funding was involved, there had to be a competition. The tower was going to be erected as a monument to the anniversary of the start of the French Revolution; it might have been considered poor taste if the government had awarded him the contract without at least a show of democratic process.
Eiffel signed a contract on January 8, 1887 in his own personal right, instead of as a representative of his company. He was given a grant of 1.5 million francs to put towards the cost of construction, which was far short of the estimated total sum of 8 million francs; Eiffel would have to supply the remaining 6.5 million. To recoup this cost, Eiffel would be entitled to any commercial income the tower would bring in during the Exposition and for the next 20 years; remember that the tower was meant to be a temporary structure, and it was planned that it would be disassembled at that point in time.
Construction began on January 28, 1887, which involved digging several metres below ground-level for the placement of the tower’s concrete foundations. You can find more details on the construction details of the tower on its official website. It took five months to build the foundations, and twenty-one months to assemble all of the metal pieces. The tower contains 2.5 million rivets, 7,300 tonnes of iron, and 18,038 metallic parts. 150 workers pre-assembled all of the metallic parts at the Levallois-Perret factory, and 150-300 workers then amassed them on-site. The first floor was finished on April 1, 1888; the second on August 14, 1888; and the main structural work was completed by March 31, 1889.
On March 31, Eiffel led a group of government officials and members of the press on a tour to the top of the tower. The lifts were not yet ready, so the ascent took over an hour, with Eiffel stopping to explain various features along the way (and allowing the group moments of respite to catch their breath). Most of the group remained behind on the lower levels, but a few brave (and fit) individuals accompanied him to the top of the tower, a distance of 1,710 steps! He hoisted a large tricolour flag and a 25-gun salute was fired.
Even though the Eiffel Tower served as the entrance gate to the grounds of the Exposition Universelle, the tower wasn’t quite ready for public visitors on the fair’s opening day of May 6, 1889. It opened nine days later on May 15, although the lifts wouldn’t be in service until May 26. This didn’t dampen visitor enthusiasm. Nearly 30,000 people still made their ascent to the uppermost reaches of the tower between May 15-26, and nearly 2 million visited the tower throughout the rest of the Exposition. It was the tallest tower in the world (and would remain so until 1931 when the Chrysler Tower was completed in New York), and offered an unprecedented view over Paris. This was over a decade before the Wright brothers made their first successful series of airplane flights in 1903, so no one had yet seen Paris at this height before. On a clear day, visitors can see up to 80 kilometers (50 miles)!
Tickets cost 2 francs for the first floor, 3 francs for the second, and 5 for the very top. The first floor featured four restaurants of different styles: Russian, French, Flemish, and an Anglo-American bar. There was a patisserie on the second level. Le Figaro, a French newspaper, also had an office and a printing press on the second floor. They produced a special edition of the daily newspaper on-site every day (titled Imprimée dans la Tour Eiffel/Printed in the Eiffel Tower), and visitors could have their name added to the paper to “certify” that they had climbed the tower. There was a post office on the third level, where visitors could send letters and post cards to commemorate their visit¹. At the top of the tower, Eiffel had a scientific laboratory and a private office installed where he received guests such as Thomas Edison (who gifted him with a new invention, one of his phonographs). Throughout the tower there were boutiques selling souvenirs and refreshments, photographers’ booths, and binocular rentals (Eiffel had to make back that money he had invested, after all!).
An illustration of the Exposition grounds, below. The first drawing shows the grounds of the Champ de Mars on the left, and the grounds of the Trocadéro on the right. Note the tricolour flag flying from the top of the Eiffel Tower!
The illustration below shows the grounds of the Trocadéro in the distance on the left, and the Champ de Mars on the right.
Electric street lights had just been installed in Paris, and so this was the first world’s fair to ever be open at night. Fountains glowed with coloured lights, boats along the Seine strung up lanterns, and fireworks burst through the night skies. Not to be outdone, the Eiffel Tower was lit up with 10,000 gas street lamps protected by opal glass cases. A beacon at the top of the tower flashed out three beams of red, white, and blue light. The beacon lights were considered the most powerful in the world, and could be seen 80 kilometres away. Two search lights were used to light up other buildings on the grounds (including a reconstruction of the Bastille and the Rue Saint-Antoine that surrounded it)². I’m trying to imagine what it must have been like for Exposition attendees: the streets magically lit up at night for the first time, a tower that offered an unparalleled sky-high view, and the Bastille fortress back from the dead. I don’t think I can properly appreciate what a thrill this spectacle really would have been like for the people of the time. It sounds like an interesting setting for a story…
The Eiffel Tower wasn’t popular with everyone. As ground broke in 1887, the “Committee of the Three Hundred” (one member for each metre of the tower’s height) was formed featuring French writers, artists, and architects. They circulated a petition that was sent to the French Minister of Works, and was published in the Paris newspaper Le Temps. They were concerned (not without cause) that the tower would be completely out of character with the rest of the city. The petition stated:
To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour de Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for twenty years … we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.
Writer Léon Bloy called the Eiffel Tower “a tragic lamppost.” Guy de Maupassant, “a giant and disgraceful skeleton.” According to legend, de Maupassant is said to have eaten lunch at either the base of the tower or one of the tower’s restaurants “every day” because he said that it was from there that he could enjoy the best view of Paris, one that didn’t include the Eiffel Tower.
Eiffel was stung, but not deterred, by the criticism. He compared his tower project to the pyramids in Egypt, claiming:
Do you think it is for their artistic value that the pyramids have so powerfully struck the imagination of men? What are they, after all, but artificial mountains? [The aesthetic impact of the pyramids was found in] the immensity of the effort and the grandeur of the result. My tower will be the highest structure that has ever been built by men. Why should that which is admirable in Egypt become hideous and ridiculous in Paris?
Suffice it to say, that Eiffel’s words were to ring more true. His tower was a hit. He had twenty years to earn back his investment in the project through the selling of admission tickets and souvenirs, but it only took him six months. The tower remains the most-visited paid monument in the world, and has had 250 million visitors since its opening. Just under 7 million people visit it each year.
As previously mentioned, the Eiffel Tower was only intended to stand for 20 years, until 1909. However, Eiffel demonstrated that the tower would be useful in the long-term for many scientific and technological activities such as meteorological and astronomical observations, wind studies, and physics experiments; serving as a strategic vantage point and an optical telegraph communications point; as well as providing a beacon for electrical lighting. On the day after the tower’s official inauguration, Eiffel had a meteorology lab installed on the third floor that was outfitted with all manner of scientific instruments such as barometers, anemometers, and lightning conductors. He had gravity instruments installed in 1903-1905. He had a wind tunnel built at the bottom of the tower. Eiffel’s contributions to the fields of meteorology and aerodynamics (which he pursued in retirement) would be just as significant as those he had made in his earlier field of engineering.
Eiffel also encouraged numerous scientific experiments on the tower. On November 5, 1898, the first wireless telegraphy trials were carried out between the Eiffel Tower and the Panthéon, a distance of 4 kilometers. In 1899, waves transmitted from the Eiffel Tower crossed the English Channel for the first time. In 1903, Eiffel convinced Captain Gustave Ferrié to use the Eiffel Tower for his experiments on the military applications of wireless transmissions (Eiffel also helped finance the operation). Transmission and reception was achieved over a remarkable distance of 400 kilometers, and the Department of Military Engineering approved the installation of antennas on the tower. In 1909, the proposed end year for the tower, an underground military radiotelegraphy station was set up. The government had been persuaded of the tower’s continued usefulness in wireless transmissions; the City of Paris renewed Gustav Eiffel’s license to the tower on January 1, 1910. In 1913, telegrams were sent using electric signals to America and to trans-Atlantic ships within a distance of 6,000 kilometers. In 1914, during the Battle of Marne, the Tower’s radiotelegraphic station was able to pick up crucial information from the German army that allowed the French command to organize a successful counter-attack. The tower also picked up enemy radio telegrams, exposing famed German spy, Mata Hari. Radio transmissions were broadcast starting in 1921, and television in 1935.
As the Germans streamed in to occupy Paris in 1940, the French cut the cables to the tower lifts. The tower was closed to the public throughout the occupation.
As Allied troops neared the city in August 1944, Hitler ordered that the tower be destroyed along with the rest of the city. General Dietrich von Choltitz, the military governor of Paris, (thankfully!) disobeyed him. The lift cables were repaired in 1946.
That’s the history! Now let’s move onto our visit. Neil and I opted for a skip-the-line-sunset tour of the Eiffel Tower. If there’s one thing that’s worth the money in Paris, I would say it’s the skip-the-line tours. We were visiting during peak season in June and July, and many of the top attractions had line-ups that were hours-long. Plus, it was unbearably hot outside. It was worth it to us to not spend hours in line miserably waiting for our turn to go in.
And our Eiffel Tower trip was worth every penny. With an attraction like this, you worry that it’s going to be an over-hyped tourist trap. That the experience of going to Paris and seeing the Eiffel Tower is such a cliché, that it can’t help but fall short of expectations. I can say with complete confidence that this is not the case. Our visit was a highlight of the time we spent there, and I would heartily recommend it to others.
There are three levels that are accessible to visitors. The first floor is located at a height of 187 feet (approximately 57 metres); there are 347 steps to reach this level. It has a restaurant, a buffet, and a souvenir shop. It also features a glass-bottomed floor! The second level is 377 feet (115 metres) from the ground. It has a Michelin-starred restaurant, the Jules Verne, as well as a couple of gift shops and a macaroon bar in the buffet. The third floor, located at 906 feet (276 metres) contains a champagne bar and a historical reconstruction of Gustav Eiffel’s office. The tower’s total height is 1,063 feet (324 metres).
Looking up from the ground towards the first floor.
The visit begins with catching one of five elevators that take visitors up to the second floor. Two lifts are then available to make the final ascent to the third floor. The view is probably the best on the second floor. It is set at a height where you’re able to see everything, but you’re not so high that things become indistinct (as can be the case with the third floor). I’ll show you pictures of the view from both so you can compare.
First, we’ll begin with the view, looking south-east, of the Champ de Mars from the second floor at 377 feet (115 metres). The Champ de Mars is a large public green space in Paris. It was one of the areas that housed the exhibition grounds for the Exposition Universelle of 1889. It was also, if you read my post on Notre-Dame, the setting for Robespierre’s Feast of the Cult of the Supreme Being on June 8, 1794 (20 days before Robespierre himself would meet the guillotine).
Looking a little left (in a direction that faces a little more straight east) of the Champ de Mars. You can see the shadow that the Eiffel Tower casts! You can also see the golden dome of Les Invalides (which contains Napoleon’s tomb).
A close-up of Les Invalides.
All right, zoomed back and looking a little to the right (a little more straight south) of the Champ de Mars.
Further to the right (south).
Straight down the Champ de Mars again. It’s a popular meeting spot for picnics and other activities.
In the distance is the Tour Montparnasse, an office skyscraper that was built between 1969-1973. Like the Eiffel Tower, the Montparnasse Tower has had its share of controversy. Not many people appreciated the aesthetic choices that went into their design. Unlike the Eiffel Tower, the Tour Montparnasse failed to win over any of its critics. It is often called the ugliest tower in Paris, and it is the reason why Paris’ financial district is located far away from its main historic centre; no one wanted any more ugly skyscrapers cluttering up the skyline! In fact, there is a city ordinance in this area of Paris that now restricts buildings to a height of 12 storeys.
Poor Tour Montparnasse. I’m told that it has a lovely view of the Eiffel Tower, and that it has the fastest elevator in Europe that shoots you up to the 56th floor in record time. If you aren’t able to get tickets to the Eiffel Tower, it might be a good alternative (and the lines are much shorter!).
All right, here is the view of the Champ de Mars from the third level of the Eiffel Tower at 906 feet (276 metres). Have I mentioned before that Paris is huge?
You can definitely see the far end of the Champ de Mars a little better, as well as the Tour Montparnasse. The buildings at the end of the park are part of a military school.
All right, let’s return to the second level for a view on the other side of the Eiffel Tower, of the Jardins du Trocadéro. This is looking northwest.
A few buildings have come and gone in this space. At the time of the Exposition Universelle in 1889, there was a Moorish and Neo-Byzantine-style building called the Palais du Trocadéro. It had been built for the 1878 Expo, and was torn down in 1935 to make way for the present Palais de Chaillot (built for the 1937 Expo). Several museums and a theatre are located in the current Palais. There is also an excellent viewing platform that is used by many people to watch the Eiffel Tower’s evening light show (covered later in the post).
In the distance, you can see the skyscrapers that make up Paris’ financial district.
A closer view.
A close-up of the sunset and the financial buildings.
The view of the Trocadéro from the third level.
In the picture below you can see the viewing platform (located between the two arms of the Palais du Chaillot) that people use to watch the Eiffel Tower’s light show at night.
Now that the two main views (from two different levels) are covered, we’ll check out some specific attractions that can be seen from the Eiffel Tower.
Here is Notre-Dame from the second-level of the Tower. It is located to the east, and slightly south.
Notre-Dame from the third level. (Various stages of zooming in).
The Arc de Triomphe from the second level, located north of the tower.
The Arc de Triomphe from the third level of the tower. You can see the crazy round-about of traffic that surrounds it from here (doesn’t look too busy right now, but it was around 9:30 pm when this photo was taken).
Here is a photo of Les Invalides taken from the third level. Les Invalides is located east (and slightly north) of the Eiffel Tower.
A couple of pictures of Les Invalides taken later in the evening, when it lights up. You can see the Panthéon in the distance, to the right (where Victor Hugo and other notable Parisians are laid to rest).
The large complex of buildings in the middle of the picture is the Louvre. The Louvre is located east of the Eiffel Tower. The building located towards the top right of the picture, with the blue roof, is the Centre Pompidou, a modern art museum. We were staying just a few blocks away from the Centre Pompidou. It is about an hour walk from our apartment to the Eiffel Tower.
The hill of Montmartre, with the Basilica Sacré Coeur located at its peak, is located north-east of the Eiffel Tower.
Nearby is the Holy Trinity Cathedral and the Russian Orthodox Spiritual and Cultural Centre.
Here it is, lit up after sunset.
A Haussman apartment building.
Overlooking the Seine River. Looking north and east, to the right of the tower, from the second level.
The same view as the picture above, but slightly later in the evening when it is lit up (and zoomed in a little).
A little further along the bank to the right.
The Pont Alexandre III Bridge.
Zoomed out a little bit. The Grand Palais is located to the left side of the Pont Alexandre III bridge (with the glass and steel roof).
The Grand Palais.
The north bend of the river, located to the right of the tower, from the third level.
Overlooking the Seine river on the left (south-west) side of the tower. The Pont de Bir-Hakam bridge is in the foreground, with the narrow Île aux Cygnes (Isle of the Swans) located in the middle of the river.
A close-up of the Pont de Bir-Hakam bridge
If you look closely in the picture below, at the Île aux Cygnes in the middle of the river, there is a 22 foot-replica of the Statue of Liberty located at the far end of the island. She was gifted to France by America in 1889 (just in time for the Exposition!) She faces west, in the direction of her older and taller sister in New York.
The bridge and the island as viewed from the third level of the tower.
Neil and I went to the second and third levels to take pictures of the view, then we stayed for awhile to watch the sunset (after the tour was over, you were welcome to stay as long as you liked). It was around 9:30 pm at this point. Every night after sunset, the Eiffel Tower lights up for five minutes at the top of the hour until 1:00 am. We weren’t sure if the first light show would come on at 10:00 pm, as the sun was still setting and it wasn’t dark outside yet. I really wanted to be on the tower while the lights were sparkling, but didn’t want to wait until 11:00 pm. We didn’t want to get back to our apartment too late, and it had been a very long and hot day. Happily, the lights did come on at 10:00 pm while we were still there! I was thrilled.
Waiting for the magic to happen.
Still waiting. You can see the little lamps on the metal. There are 20,000 of them (5,000 per side). They have a low wattage of only 6 amps each, and they light up randomly as they are all separate from each other.
There they go!
For a video, please check out my Instagram here (last slide in the carousel).
After the light show, Neil and I took the stairs all the way down.
Here are a couple of photos taken from the first level of the tower. There was a dance floor that was starting to heat up outside of the 58 Tour Eiffel restaurant by the time we made it all the way down.
Standing on the first floor, looking across.
Here are some fun shots we took on the ground looking up at the tower.
Neil and I then walked over to the viewing platform in the Trocadéro Gardens so we could watch the light show again at 11:00 pm.
The view from the platform, waiting for the show to begin.
While we’re waiting, here’s a fun fact: the Eiffel Tower requires 60 tonnes of paint to be re-applied every 7 years. It takes 25 workers eighteen months to complete.
Here come the sparkles!
¹ The oldest illustrated post card in France was actually printed at the Eiffel Tower with a run of 300,000 copies. It is known as the “Cartes Libonis” after its illustrator and lithographer, Charles-Léon Libonis. The oldest postmark on an Eiffel Tower postcard is from August 21, 1889. The Eiffel Tower actually popularized the use of postcards in France: over 56,000 were sent in just three weeks that year. On August 29, Le Figaro announced that the visiting public could send their letters by balloon. Small balloons and cheap parachutes would be sold from all floors of the tower, and a letter could be attached to them. I’m not sure how successful this venture was meant to be, since the sender’s address was left blank, but it certainly sounds like fun!
Here is a postcard of the Eiffel Tower that we picked up on our trip:
²The reconstruction of the Bastille and its surrounding neighbourhood, the Rue Saint-Antoine (complete with houses and storefronts) opened a year before the Exposition itself. It was located at the end of the Champ de Mars, at the corner of Avenue de Suffren and Avenue de la Motte Picquet. The interior of the reconstruction was transformed into a village-style banquet “Hall of Festivities” instead of a gloomy prison. There were plays, songs, and dancing. A pantomime entitled “The Escape of a Prisoner of the Bastille” reenacted, in the style of a suspenseful adventure, the escape and recapture of a famous Bastille prisoner named Jean Henri Latude. Eugène Colibert was the architect behind the reconstruction. The project cost 12 million francs—compare that to the Eiffel Tower’s cost of 8 million francs! It also turned a tidy profit, making over 1 million francs between 1888-1889.