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Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Eiffel Tower Inaugurated, March 31, 1889

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Today in 1889, the Eiffel Tower was inaugurated. It remains today one of the most recognizable man-made structures on the planet. The tower has become a symbol of Paris; with that in mind, it is hard to imagine that it was once considered an eyesore and was twice almost demolished.

The tower is named after Gustave Eiffel, the man who, along with Maurice Koechlin, Emile Nouguier, Stephen Sauvestre and others, designed and oversaw its construction. The project was proposed in 1884 as the centerpiece of the Universal Exposition, a world's fair that would take place in 1889 and mark the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. Over 700 design proposals were submitted for a tower, but Eiffel's design proved to be the most popular. The design was not originally meant for Paris, but for the Universal Exposition of 1888 which was held in Barcelona, Spain. The Spanish rejected the design; only then did Eiffel enter it for consideration for the 1889 fair in Paris.

Construction of the tower began in 1887 and continued for the next two years. The construction crew was 300 men strong. They joined more than 18,000 pieces of structural iron in making the tower, using 2.5 million rivets in the process. When finished, it towered over every other structure in Paris at 986 feet. The second tallest building in Paris is almost 300 feet shorter. Amazingly, the tower only weighs 7,300 tons.

In an era when construction deaths were not only common but expected, Eiffel took great pains to ensure the safety of his workers through the use of guard rails, movable platforms and other innovations. Unlike multi-storied buildings, the tower only has two intermediate platforms between the ground and the observation deck. Although this increased the risk of death from falling, only one man died during the tower's construction.

When the Eiffel Tower was inaugurated today in 1889, it was the world's tallest structure, a title previously held by the Washington Monument. It would retain the title for 41 years, when the Chrysler Building was completed in 1930. In the last decades of the 19th century, open iron lattices were new to a population used to looking at buildings that were covered in brick or wood or stucco. To many Parisians, the Eiffel Tower seemed like an unfinished monstrosity and an eyesore located on an otherwise pristine skyline. It would be a generation before the grace and beauty of the tower was accepted by the public.

Eiffel had received a permit from the city of Paris allowing the tower to remain standing for 20 years, long after the end of the Universal Exposition. The original contest for which the plans for the tower were submitted required that any structure built be easily disassembled or demolished. As the year 1909 approached and Eiffel's 20 year permit saw the end of its life draw near, there was much discussion about what was to be done with the tower. In the end, it was saved by technology. The French military learned that wireless transmissions sent from an antenna atop the tower could travel much further than those sent from shorter structures. The government called for the tower to remain in place and a permanent underground radio room was built near the south pillar.

From 1925 to 1934, the tower acted as a billboard for the Citroen automobile company, as giant letters spelled out the company's name from the observation deck to the second level. It was the tallest billboard in the world.

In the spring of 1940, as the German army neared Paris, the lift cables for the tower's elevators were cut and other machinery necessary for their operation simply disappeared. It was thought that Hitler would want to survey the French capital from the top of the tower; had he wanted to do so, he would have had to climb all 1665 steps. What the French patriots did not know was that Hitler was afraid of heights.

As the Allies prepared to liberate Paris in August, 1944, Hitler ordered the General in charge of the occupation to demolish the tower and burn the rest of the city. He ignored the order and later said that he did not want to be remembered as the man who destroyed Paris.

The tower has had its share of damage over the years. In 1902, it was struck by lightning and much of the lighting had to be replaced. In 1956, a fire damaged the top deck. More recently, in 2003, a fire in the broadcasting equipment room on top of the tower burned for 40 minutes before it was brought under control.

Despite these disturbances, the Eiffel Tower continues to host over 6,000,000 million visitors each year; to date, more than 200,000,000 people have visited the structure.

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