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If you are like me and would like to know how and why it happened and who was involved in building one of the great wonders of this world which still stands up in that polluted town called Paris, then this book is for you.
Written in 1975 by Joseph Harriss the title is: The Tallest Tower Eiffel and the Belle Epoque. With 257 pages and a number of period black and white photographs, it is a joy to read. The book gives a lot of interesting details not just about that Paris Icon, the Eiffel Tower, but also about the building of the Statue of Liberty which Eiffel was involved. Without him designing the interior structure it would never have been built. The Tower would be the highest tower ever built at 1000 feet.
By comparison the Washington Monument, the tallest stone structure up to that time was only 555 ft. high. In France the soaring Cathedral spires were smaller, Rouen was 492 ft., Chartres’s spires only 370 ft., and the tallest tower the Cologne Cathedral in Germany reached just 512 ft. In a concise manner, the book is written not only as architectural history, it also explains the economic background of this engineering marvel and the time constraints against which it was built.
To understand the background of those great engineers of the latter part of the Nineteenth Century I would like to give a bit of background history. It was the use of iron that freed the architects from the dome, the vault and the arch structures and for it they needed an engineer (below a bird’s eye view from a postcard in 1900 with the tower in the background).
Like most European countries engineers in France from the early Nineteenth Century on were divided into several categories depending on the type of engineering practiced and the level of education achieved. The Categories are as follows:
1. Militairy engineers whose duties and fields of application would be the construction of defense lines, fortifications and the development of armament in general.
2. Public works engineers employed by the State and active in the construction and maintenance of mining, transportation, waterways, bridges as well as the development of cartography and the science of geography.
3. Civil engineers, those engineers working in private industry.
Outside our scope of investigation is the education of militairy and public works engineers that was exclusively the domain of the state. As early as 1717, a Government Corps was set up to construct bridges and waterways and was named the Corps des Ponts et Chaussées in 1747. They established their own school the so-called Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées. Two mining schools in France formed the mining engineers respectively, the Ecole des Mines established in 1783, the other school carries the name of Ecole de Saint Etienne. The French Revolution changed a number of formal educational aspects. In 1794, the first State Central School for Public Works was chartered the so-called Ecole Centrale de Travaux Publics, the forerunner of the famous French Ecole Polytechnique.
Civil engineering as we know it today, started at the onset of the Industrial Revolution when private enterprise needed engineers to develop factories. Shortly thereafter, private schools would take charge of the proper engineering education.
The first non-governmental engineering institution still existing until this day, albeit as a public school was founded by a group of industrialists who in 1829 with private capital formed the Ecole Central des Arts et Manufactures in short the Ecole Central.
By the middle of the Nineteenth Century similar schools were also set up in the French Provinces. In 1848, the French Society of Civil Engineers was founded and most of their members were graduates of the Ecole Central. Some of these graduates became well known: Gustave Eiffel, builder of the best known tower in the world even today was a graduate of the class of 1855. William Le Baron Jenney, the American architect graduated from it in 1856. He became the mentor of many Chicago based architects such as Louis Sullivan, William Holabird, Martin Roche. Jenney was the first Chicago architect to use interior iron framing in his Chicago Home Insurance Building in 1885, reducing the walls to nothing more than a protective envelope that characterizes the glass-walled skyscrapers of today.
André Michelin, the founder of the worldwide tire and industrial empire was an 1877 graduate, Blériot aviator and aircraft designer was also a graduate and Robert Peugeot class of 1895 went on to found the automobile company of the same name. Many lesser known engineers today contributed to the fame of French engineering over time in many diverse fields. One of the core requirements in the engineering curriculum was the art of drawing and drafting plans. Bear in mind that in those days no uniform international regulations pertaining to measurements existed such as the DIN, UNI or ASE standards.