Eiffel’s Other Icon

French engineer Gustave Eiffel created one of the most famous structures in the world. For over forty years the 300m (984ft) Eiffel Tower was the tallest man-made object in the world, and it remains a global icon – its image forever linked to Paris. Earlier in his career, when the tower was just a twinkle in his eye, Eiffel worked on another structure which is also inextricably linked to a single city. The city is New York and the structure is the Statue of Liberty.

The statue was the brainchild of the sculptor Frederic Bartholdi and he spent most of the 1870s promoting his idea on both sides of the Atlantic and raising funds to get the project off the ground. As the end of the decade approached it seemed that his huge statue of ‘Liberty Enlightening the World’ was on the way to becoming reality. The statue was a gift from the people of France to the people of America and the plan was for it to be built in France before being dismantled and shipped to New York.

Although an accomplished sculptor, Bartholdi needed help if his 46m (151ft) creation was going to survive the wind, sun, waves and passing of time as it stood in New York Harbour. He recruited his friend, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, a well established architect to work on the structural engineering aspects of the project. Viollet-le-Duc came up with the idea of a brick built core structure which supported the copper sheets that made up the visible exterior of the statue. Then in 1879 disaster struck when Viollet-le-Duc fell ill and died.

Bartholdi urgently needed to find a replacement and he chose the 47 year-old Gustave Eiffel, who had built a thriving engineering practice and was most famous for his bridges constructed of metal. Eiffel, and his structural engineer Maurice Koechlin, threw out the brick based design and instead came up with a metal framework. The sheets of copper that made up the statue were then attached to the framework. The joints between the frame and the outer skin were cleverly designed to allow movement. The statue would be subject to both gales coming in from the Atlantic Ocean and the burning heat of a New York summer. It needed to be able to flex if it was to survive more than a few years without cracking.

Eiffel's framework for inside the statue
Eiffel’s framework for inside the statue

Koechlin also spent a lot of time analysing how the statue could cope with wind forces from different directions. He clearly got his sums right. Not only is the statue still standing more than 130 years after completion, but when Hurricane Sandy struck New York in 2012 it was undamaged, despite both the buildings and dock on Liberty Island needing major repair.

By 1884 the statue was complete and formally presented to the American ambassador to Paris. It was then dismantled and shipped to New York. Working to Eiffel’s drawings, the Norwegian born engineer Joachim Giaerer oversaw its re-assembly on Liberty Island and there was a formal ceremony of dedication in October 1886.

Just two-and-a-half years later, on 31st March 1889, the Eiffel Tower opened – providing Gustave Eiffel with the second global icon of his engineering career.



Enlightening the World, Yasmin Sabina Khan, Cornell University Press, 2010

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