Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (December 15th, 1832 – December 27th, 1923), was a French structural engineer and entrepreneur and a pioneer in the construction of steel structures. He is famous for designing the Eiffel Tower.
Gustave Eiffel was born in Dijon, Côte-d'Or, France. The name Eiffel was adopted by his father in the early 19th century from his birthplace in the German Eifel region (in Marmagen), as the French could not pronounce his actual surname, Bönickhausen. During his youth, the two strongest influences on Eiffel were both successful chemists, his uncles Jean-Baptiste Mollerat and Michel Perret. Both men spent a lot of time with young Eiffel, filling his head with everything from chemistry and mining to religion and philosophy. At school, Eiffel was extremely smart, but not very studious. While attending high school at Lycée Royal, Eiffel was bored and felt that the classes were a waste of time. It was not until his last two years at school that Eiffel found his niche; not in engineering, but in history and literature. Eiffel's study habits improved and he graduated with a degree in both science and humanities. Eiffel went on to attend college at Sainte Barbe College in Paris, in order to prepare for the difficult entrance exams into The École Polytechnique. The École Polytechnique was, and still is, the most prestigious engineering institution in France. Ultimately, Eiffel was denied admission to The École Polytechnique, but instead attended the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in Paris where he studied chemistry, receiving the equivalent of a Master of Science degree in 1855. École Centrale was a liberal private school that is now known as one of the top engineering schools in Europe. His mother's coal business provided ample income for the family and provided the funds for Gustave to receive his university education. The year 1855 was the same year that Paris hosted the first World's Fair. After graduation, Eiffel's uncle offered him a job at his vinegar works in Dijon, France. However, a family dispute removed that opportunity, and Eiffel soon accepted entry-level employment with a company that designed railway bridges.
Charles Nepveu provided Eiffel with his first job as one of many project managers for a railway bridge located in Bordeaux, France. During the construction process, fellow engineers on the project were steadily quitting, and Eiffel eventually took charge of the entire project. Neveu saw the work that Eiffel performed on the site, and continued to place Eiffel in other jobs that involved project management of railway bridges and structures. During these projects, Eiffel got to know other engineers of the time, and he would be remembered for his work and allowed to work on other projects. Without the influence of Neveu and his unwavering support, Eiffel might not have been as successful as he would later become for many of his structures.
Eiffel et Cie., Eiffel's consulting and construction firm, with the support of Belgian engineer Téophile Seyrig, participated in an international bid to design and build a 160-m long railway bridge over the Douro river, between Oporto and Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal. His proposal was the winner because it was a beautiful, transparent structure, it was the least expensive, and it incorporated the use of the method of forces, a then novel technique in structure design developed by Maxwell in 1864. The Ponte Maria Pia is a double-hinged arch that supports a single-line railway plate through pillars that reinforce the whole of the bridge. The construction proceeded rapidly and the bridge was built in less than two years (5 January 1876 to 4 November 1877). It was inaugurated by King D. Luís and Queen D. Maria Pia, after whom it was named. The bridge was in use until 1991 (114 years), when it was superseded by the S. John Bridge, designed by engineer Edgar Cardoso.Eiffel built a number of cast iron railway bridges in the Massif Central, such as the viaducts at Rouzat and Bouble. They are still in use by local trains and were built in the late 1860s.
Gustave Eiffel also designed La Ruche in Paris, France. This, like the Eiffel Tower, became a city landmark. It is a three-storey circular structure that looks like a large beehive and was created as a temporary structure for use as a wine rotunda at the Great Exposition of 1900. Quite coincidentally, the French translation of La Ruche is "the beehive". He also constructed the Garabit viaduct, a railway bridge near Ruynes en Margeride in the Cantal département. In the Americas, Eiffel designed the central railway station in Santiago de Chile (1897) and the Mona Island Light located near Puerto Rico. The lighthouse was built around 1900 by the United States which acquired the island after the end of the Spanish-American War. It was decommissioned in 1976.
In 1887, Eiffel became involved with the French effort to construct a Panama Canal. The French Panama Canal Company, led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, had been attempting to build a sea-level canal, but finally came to the realisation that this was impractical. An elevated, lock-based canal was chosen as the new design, and Eiffel was enlisted to design and build the locks. However, the whole canal project suffered from serious mismanagement, and finally collapsed with enormous losses. Eiffel's reputation suffered a severe setback when he was implicated in the financial scandals surrounding de Lesseps and the entrepreneurs backing the project. Eiffel himself had no connection with the finances, and his guilty judgment was later reversed. However, his work was never realised, as the later American effort to build a canal used new lock designs (see History of the Panama Canal).
After retirement he researched and developed new ideas through practical use of the Eiffel Tower. The tower enabled him to make advancements in aerodynamics, meteorology, and radio-broadcasting. He built a wind tunnel at the base of the tower for his aerodynamic research, had meteorological equipment placed in various locations on the tower, and suggested to the military to have radio equipment installed on the top of the tower. Within the following years the tower would continue to serve as a permanent radio tower and eventually used for television broadcasting.
Eiffel died on December 27, 1923 in his mansion on Rue Rabelais in Paris, France. He was interred in the Cimetière de Levallois-Perret.
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