31st March 1889 - The 14th July 1789 is one, if not the most, of France’s most notable dates. It was the day when the Bastille was stormed in Paris marking the opening of the French Revolution. The Bastille, a medieval fortress, prison and symbol of the abuses of power by the French monarchy, was taken by “The Third Estate” – the commoners.
A hundred years later the Exposition Universelle, or World Fair, would commemorate such a landmark date. This fair would include a reconstruction of the storming of the Bastille as well as providing a centrepiece monument. Over 100 designs and plans by companies and artists, were submitted but the winner was the company Eiffel et Compagnie. Gustave Eiffel was a well-known builder, architect and specialist in metal work and although initially sceptical about the whole project took up the challenge. Much of the work was done by one of his employees, Maurice Koechlin, and it was he who came up with the idea and fine-tuned it. Eiffel asked him to add more ornamentation to his design and construction started on January 28th 1887.
The tower was never meant to be a permanent addition to the Parisian skyline and was due to be demolished in 1909. However it was saved and used as a giant radio antenna. In 1917, During World War One, a coded message was intercepted between Germany and Spain by the antenna about operative H-21, a Dutch born dancer called Margaretha Zelle Macleod, otherwise known as Mata Hari. With the information received she was arrested, convicted of espionage and executed by firing squad on 15th October 1917.
When complete, the structure was the tallest in the world at over 300m tall replacing the Washington Monument as holder of this title. Its height varies by up to 15cm due to temperature changes. It held this honour until the Chrysler Building was constructed in New York in 1930. A radio mast was added which increased its height by 20m but the arrival of the Empire State Building in 1931 ended any pretentions to this title.
The construction itself consists of 18,000 pieces of puddle iron (a type of wrought iron) and 2.5million rivets. It now has 20,000 light bulbs and the weight of the paint used to redecorate it every 7 years weighs the equivalent of 10 elephants. Such is its fame that there are over 30 replicas around the world including ones in Las Vegas, Japan, China, Pakistan, Mexico and Russia. The Eiffel Tower was also the inspiration for the Blackpool Tower after the town’s Mayor, John Bickerstaffe visited the exhibition in 1889. The Blackpool tower though is half the height and is not freestanding.
The Tower is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world and has attracted 250 million people so far. In 2011 alone nearly 7 million visited. It is not universally liked however. When Paris was captured in World War Two Hitler demanded it be destroyed but his wishes were never carried out. The French cunningly cut the cables to the lifts so that if he wanted to go up to the top he would have to walk the 1665 steps. The short story novelist Guy de Maupasset, who died in 1893, wrote a letter protesting about its ugliness. Such was his dislike for it that he ate in the restaurant at its base. He claimed that this was the only place where he could avoid seeing its looming form.
Whatever your view of its design it has become one of the most iconic, familiar and best known structures in the world.