How the Engineer Behind the Eiffel Tower Fought his Critics and Won

A Mr. Gustave Eiffel stood perched on his construction platform at the Champ de Mars, driven to finish his tower. The Exposition Universelle of 1889—the much anticipated World's Fair in Paris celebrating the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution—was quickly approaching.

Cartoon of Gustave Eiffel

Mr. Eiffel's typically wore a rich black frock coat, sleek striped pants, a starched white collared shirt, capped by a silk top hat. This engineer's pointy, meticulously trimmed beard framed his ever-perceptive blue eyes—eyes focused like laser beams on the colossal scaffolding of crossbars and iron before him.

The air was filled with the clangs of sledgehammers driving in rivets, playing a screaming rhythm joined by the dance of sparks. The laborers were increasingly disgruntled, having to deal with bad weather and dizzying heights. They attempted a strike, but Eiffel managed to lure them back with a bonus.

Illustration of Workers on the Eiffel Tower

But Eiffel had to deal with even bigger challenges. A large segment of the artistic, political, and intellectual establishment of Paris railed against his project. Now that the base looked like a hulking monstrosity, these critics felt vindicated. They dismissed the proposed design as "inartistic" and "hideously unfinished."

Illustration of Eiffel Tower under Construction

The Contest

In late 1884, the French republic announced a contest for a structural highlight to the World's Fair. When Eiffel's proposal appeared likely to be chosen, the Parisian architects were the first to attack—how dare did Eiffel, a mere builder of railway bridges, propose an industrial monument among the city's classical architecture!

In 1885, architect Jules Bourdais proposed his plan: the giant Sun Column, a 1,000 foot tall classical granite tower that would accommodate an Electricity Museum. Adorned with a band of stars, it was to be topped by a winged statue of Scienta, or the Genius of Science, and a searchlight to illuminate Paris. He failed to consider that his design was an engineering impossibility, far too heavy for its foundation.

Jules Bourdais's Sun Column

Other wacky designs included a giant water sprinkler and a huge guillotine to celebrate the fall of the Bastille.

Despite it's impracticality, the city's architects continued to push for the government to choose Bourdais's Sun Column, if only to make sure Eiffel's tower was not built. Critics used every tool of persuasion they could, from suggestions that the design was 'too American' to vile anti-semetic attacks that Eiffel was secretly a German Jew.

In the end, Eiffel's proposed design, which was originated by two other engineers— Maurice Koechlin and Émile Nouguier—was the obvious choice. It was structurally sound, elegant, and was to be the world's tallest structure—a symbol of France's ascendancy into modern life.

Yet the ciy's architectural establishment remained entrenched in classicism. A dinner was held where nearly a hundred architecture alumni of the respected Ecole des Beaux-Arts sang along with silly songs skewering the "funnel planted on it's flat butt."

Still, Eiffel had his allies. One was the fair's commissioner and minister of trade, Édouard Lockroy, who boldly advocated the building of the tower.

After vigorous debate over the tower's location, the government committee finally voted 21-11 to secure the contract for Eiffel's tower, and granted him 1.5 million frances to get started. Eiffel later had to provide much of the capital himself.

Cartoon of Gustave Eiffel as the Eiffel Tower

The Protest

As the work on the tower began, a last ditch effort was lead by architect Charles Garnier. It was a protest that included many then-big names from the arts establishments, including painter Adolphe Bouguereau and writer Henri Maupassant.

It was published by Le Temps, Paris' most important newspaper, in 1887, and included this:

We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection ... of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower ... 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 Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream.

When foreigners visit our Exposition they will cry out in astonishment, 'Is it this horror that the French have created to give us an idea of their vaunted taste? ... And for the next twenty years we will see cast over the entire city, still trembling with the genuis of so many centuries, cast like a spot of ink, the odious shadow of the odious column of bolted metal. — Charles Garnier

Eiffel went on the offense. He defened his tower as not only an engineering feat, but also on the grounds of aesthetics:

I believe that the tower will have its own beauty. The first principle of architectural beauty is that the essential lines of a construction be determined by a perfect appropriateness to its use. What was the main obstacle I had to overcome in designing the tower? Its resistance to wind. And I submit that the curves of its four piers as produced by our calculations, rising from an enormous base and narrowing toward the top, will give a great impression of strength and beauty.

My tower will be the tallest edifice ever erected by man. Will it not also be grandiose in its way? And why would something admirable in Egypt become hideous and ridiculous in Paris? — Gustave Eiffel

The protest was also dealt with wittily in a letter of support by Édouard Lockroy:

Judging by the stately swell of the rhythms, the beauty of the metaphors, the elegance of its delicate and precise style, one can tell that...this protest is the result of collaboration of the most famous writers and poets of our time ...

More seriously, he argued that the protest "may be used as a pretext by some nations not to take part in our celebration."

Lockroy added that the protest letter should be exhibited in "a showcase at the Exposition. Such beautiful and noble prose cannot but interest the crowds, and perhaps even amaze them."

Since the building was already well underway, the protest and reaction was merely fodder for the press. Eiffel and his laborers were more concerned with logistical challenges at this point.

Eiffel Tower at the World's Fair in Paris

Criticism Turns to Praise

Racing towards completion of his tower, Eiffel faced a number of challenges: bad weather, lack of financing, labor disputes, delays in elevator construction, and ongoing mockery. But as the construction of the monument neared completion, even many intense critics became convinced of its elegant beauty.

The Daily Telegraph wrote:

M. Eiffel's Tower of Babel is rising steadily, and the enormous mass of iron which the constructors have already piled up against the clouds is the amazement of everybody. When you stand at the base of the gigantic monument and look up to the skies through a collosal spider's web of red metal the whole thing strikes you as being one of the most daring attempts since Biblical days.

A grandiose marvel as it rises majestically in the air ... at once graceful and imposing, having naught in common with that tower of Babel, which, if it ever did exist, rose no higher than a fifth-story window. — Le Figaro

A Paris correspondent for The New York Times reported: looks as if the first outburst of derision that ridiculed the idea of the monster construction might finally be changed into a victorious hossanna of praise, to the particular happiness of M. Eiffel himself and to the tribute also of his more obscure assistants.

And in 1889 an Englishman wrote: "why so much mud should have been thrown at M. Eiffel by part of the press .... Why call a man mad and a fool who has sufficient pluck and ingenuity to attempt something never before attempted?"

How many times have we not heard the remark, 'What is the use of the Eiffel Tower?' A similar question has been asked concerning almost every new thing that appears in the world. — Aerialist Gaston Tissandier

Gustave Eiffel now had many fans. He even had some more amorous admirers, such as one woman who wrote:

My request may seem odd to you but perhaps you will agree if I am the first to suggest it. I am not ugly or old, really, but capricious. I have a dream of spending one night at the summit of the tower that has your name.

Gustave Eiffel hoisting the flag on top of the Tower, April 1889

A Symbol of Progress

Structural work was completed in March of 1889. Eiffel celebrated by leading a party of government officials and members of the press up the tower. Since the elevators were not yet in operation, they made their way by foot. Put off by the dizzying heights, many of the visitors stayed on the lower levels.

Paris is going into raptures about the Eiffel Tower, which is one of the greatest successes as a wonder of the world that the world has ever wondered at ... a grandiose symbol of the march of progress since 1789 — The New York Tribune

Upon reaching the top, Eiffel's chief engineer exclaimed:

We salute the flag of 1789, which our fathers bore so proudly, which won so many victories, and which witnessed so much progress in science and humanity. We have tried to raise an adequate monument in honor of the great date of 1789, wherefore the Tower's colossal proportions.

The Eiffel Tower Haters—Haters Gonna Hate

Eiffel's Keys to Dealing With Haters

As creative people, we all have to deal with criticism. Some criticism can be constructive, and should be considered gracefully. Then there's petty criticism, often from people who don't have our best interests at heart. Like the old meme goes, haters gonna hate.

If you're at the point where you've earned some haters, chances are you're doing something right.

Gustave Eiffel had a club of haters, members of the establishment that wanted to tear him down because they saw him as a threat and a rival. But he dealt with it in a number of ways:

  • Eiffel made powerful allies who would support his plan, such as the witty Édouard Lockroy.
  • He defended his plan when appropriate, and expressed himself more gracefully than most of his critics.
  • Once his plan was approved, Eiffel focused on bigger problems, like the logistics of getting the world's tallest structure built. He was too busy to worry about haters.
  • In the end, Eiffel simply had the best proposal. His experience as an engineer and entrepreneur gave him the moxie to push through to the end.

The source for many of the quotes in this article is the book Eiffel's Tower: The Thrilling Story Behind Paris's Beloved Monument and the Extraordinary World's Fair That Introduced It. For anyone interested in Paris, the Eiffel Tower, or history in general, it's a great read.