[Postcard from 1900 Fair]

Eiffel got the job done, with the loss of only one life. By early 1889, visitors were climbing hundreds of steps to get on the first and second platforms of the towers. The elevators almost didn't make it because French procurement regulations required that the bid by the Otis Elevator Company be rejected the first time. When no French company would bid on the crucial elevator from the first to the second platform. Otis was allowed to rebid and completed the job by mid-June, not long after the opening of the Exposition. [Harris, p. 95]

On June 10, Eiffel held his grand opening, squiring royalty to the top, including tours of his private apartments. In the coming weeks, guests to to the tower included the Shah of Persia, the Prince of Wales, the King of Siam, the Bey of Djibouti, the President of France, Buffalo Bill, and Thomas Edison. Young women purchased special dresses made for the occasion, called the Eiffel ascensionniste." Over 1.9 million people came to the tower during the Exposition. [Harris, p. 122, 230]

The tower left behind a lasting legacy. Today, the Eiffel Tower still gets twice as many visitors as the Louvre. [Barthes, p. 9] The tower was used extensively by Eiffel over the next years as a serious science instrument. Working with the French Central Weather Bureau, Eiffel installed thermometers, barometers, and anemometers. Later, Eiffel's began experimenting with aerodynamics, building the world's first reliable wind tunnel in the tower.

Although Eiffel won the tower competition, there was another serious contender. Electricity and lighting was the key technology during this period. Edison's carbon filament lamp was first made public at the Paris Electricity Exposition of 1881. Up till then, electric lighting was all arc lighting. [Schivelbusch, p.58]

In the period 1880 to 1920, electricity "permeated modern urban life." The applications of this general purpose infrastructure were astounding: electroshock therapy in medicine; electrocultured galvanised plants in agriculture; local traffic systems; lifts; telephones; radio; the cinema; and, of course, countless household appliances. [Schivelbusch, p.79]

Arc lighting was quite popular in the United States. Detroit had 122 towers lighting 21 square miles. Cities ranging from San Jose to Flint, Michigan all built huge arc lighting towers. A young French electrical engineer named Sébillot toured the United States and was hooked. When the 1889 Exposition committee launched a competition for a "monumental landmark," Sébillot teamed up with the architecht Jules Bourdais. [Schivelbusch, pp. 126-128]

In 1885, the team submitted a proposal for a 360 meter Sun Tower. Designed to light "tout Paris," the tower was one of two that were submitted to the competition. The other was by a bridge designer, Gustave Eiffel. Why did the Sun Tower loose out? It was that "the light would dazzle rather than illuminate," blinding viewers with its glory.

The Tower of St. Louis


Roland Barthes, The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies Noonday Press (New York: 1979). A noted social critic, Barthes writes a series of essays in this collection of his writings.

Joseph Harriss, The Tallest Tower: Eiffel & The Belle Epoque Regnery Gateway (Washington, 1975). Fascinating biography of Eiffel with particular focus on the tower and the Exposition.

Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Disenchanted Night, University of California Press (Berkeley, 1988). Highly recommended history of lighting. Also recommended is The Railway Journey, the first volume in Schivelbusch's trilogy on the dawn of modern life.

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