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Ex airline pilot Bob Lyons
is a travel writer for
YOUR HOLIDAY TV
specialsing in Europe & Flying
In a previous life, I worked for an airline where I spent many days working from Paris. I, and the rest of my colleagues, had much leisure time to spend amusing ourselves in this hedonistic and sparkling city. On one occasion we all went out into the centre of Paris together. There was myself and a particularly grumpy co-pilot and we escorted two very glamorous air hostesses easily young enough to be our daughters. We had a couple of glasses of French wine in a fashionable bar and agreed that we would go right to the top of the Eiffel Tower. For me, it was a memorable excursion. I remember it well from over twenty years ago.
We arrived at the very imposing structure, bought our tickets and looked up as we contemplated our vertical excursion. I had been a pilot for many years and had never had any difficulty with heights. Not really, that is, unless I was still connected to the ground. Heights for me then created a very serious yet secret psychological impairment. The French wine gave me my Dutch courage. We all got into the lift and blasted off to head for the highest level, just below the TV aerials.
I have to say that the night view of Paris from the very top was breathtaking. It was just as though we were all back up in our aircraft. So far, I had not looked straight down. I gingerly wandered to the edge and observed the mighty tower structure extending through the night mist stretching to the ground far below. That was a mistake. My fear of heights rushed to invade every cell in my brain and I felt irrational, yet intense fear. I looked towards my colleagues chatting quite normally. The girls were discussing the disco that they intended to visit later in the evening. It took about twenty minutes for the lift to return to take us back to our own familiar terra firma. The doors opened again and I stepped outside. Greatly relieved, I reintroduced myself to sanity.
The Eiffel Tower in Paris is a mammoth, intimidating and overbearing chunk of structural engineering. Stand right under the base and look straight up. You will realise the effect that it can have.
The Parisian authorities had planned to hold a great event in 1889. This would be the International Exhibition of Paris and would mark the centenary of the French Revolution. Architects and artists were invited to submit designs for a prominent, artistic and leading edge object as a showcase feature to represent the modern Republic of France. There were around 700 offerings for the design competition. Gustave Eiffel presented his plans for the mighty tower and it was unanimously chosen. The Eiffel Tower would be 300 meters high, weigh roughly 7000 tons, be constructed of riveted cast iron and would be the highest man made construction in the world at that time. There was going to be much criticism of this decision from prominent intellectuals and artistic communities in Paris.
They said it would look like an ugly vast smoke stack. They said it would not blend with the other, much lower, highly ornate established architectural features of Paris. They said that there would be nowhere in Paris where this cold, metallic and obscure structure could not be seen. The Paris officials listened to these arguments but proceeded with their permission anyway. They granted a twenty year lease on the land to be used to Eiffel. They declared that when that period had expired, the tower would be demolished and sold for scrap iron. Eiffel got started and provided much of the finance from his own resources.
Despite the continuing criticism and a few labour strikes during construction, the tower only took just over two years to complete. It opened to the public in May 1889, right on time, and was an instant success. Eiffel got his money back in less than a year from ticket receipts. There were around 1,868,000 visitors in the first year. They chose to take the horrifying, yet breathtaking experience, just as I had done. The Eiffel Tower was constructed of 15000 beams of iron, 2.5 million rivets and plastered with 40 tons of paint. There are 1652 steps going all the way to the top. Lifts were only installed after construction. The peak can sway up to 12 centimetres in strong winds and the height can vary by 15 centimetres due to temperature expansion. The tower generally leans just a little towards the southern sun side due to uneven heating. Modern designers have applied the same lessons learnt about expansion to modern bridge constructions.
The Eiffel Tower was scheduled to be demolished in 1909 when the lease for the land expired. It was spared this fate though as the date approached. The telegraphic aerials installed at the top had shown themselves to be very useful for military purposes. The antenna was also to be used to support the International Time Service in 1910. And then the Great War came along. Radio communications were going to be vital to achieve final victory for the French. The installations at the tower peak were even used to entrap the infamous spy, Mata Hari. The developed radio technology at the crest also allowed the French to counter the battle of the Marne. They were able to learn about the halt of the German advance and take advantage of it. The tower now was of great service to the French people and the French State. It had become part of the City furniture and was a familiar and accepted landmark.
At the end of the construction, Gustave Eiffel had also installed a scientific laboratory for use right at the crest of the tower. This was used for a variety of experiments including wind speed measurement, barometric experiments and further investigation into radio wave propagation and communication. There was also a giant pendulum installed to support measurements made by Foucault concerning earth rotation. Aerodynamics and even rocket technology were also explored in the laboratory. The top level of the tower still supports scientific experimentation and nowadays there are more than 100 radio and television broadcasting aerials. Etched onto the rim protecting the first level, are the names of very many scientists that were the guests of Eiffel in his laboratory. Many of them are familiar and memorable.
There are three levels of the tower that can be viewed by visitors. The first provides much room for strolling and observation. People who are nervous of heights, like me, don’t like to go up much further than here. On this level there is a restaurant available to visitors called Le Tour 58 Eiffel. The next stage up is similar but much higher. Another restaurant here on this level is called Le Jules Verne. This is a gourmet establishment with a red Michelin star. During the time of the International Exhibition, the French newspaper ‘Le Figaro’ also had an office and a printing press on this platform. They produced a souvenir edition of their paper for sightseers to buy. There was also a patisserie.
The third level is right at the top, over a thousand feet above the ground. Here there is not much space but the view, if you dare to go and see it, is spectacular. The lift these days speedily heads for the very pinnacle of the tower. Again, during the time of the Exhibition, there was a post office right at the crest. Observers were able to send postcards to their friends and family to mark their great ascent. Eiffel had also provided space and writing paper for graffiti artists at the top of the tower. People were allowed to record their impressions and many of them were very curious and poetic. The designs were changed daily.
There have been many bizarre events over the years associated with the Eiffel Tower. In 1901, Alberto Santos-Dumont won a 100,000 franc prize. He flew his airship from St. Cloud to the Eiffel Tower and back again in less than half an hour. In 1910, Theodor Wulf measured radiation levels at the top and bottom of the tower. That led to the discovery of cosmic rays. In 1925, a confidence trickster sold the tower twice for scrap metal.
Between 1925 and 1934, the Citroen car manufactures advertised their vehicles on three sides of the tower. At the time this was the largest illuminated advertisement in the world. A person called Hackett performed a bungee jump right from the top of the tower in 1987. He had developed the special cord himself but was promptly arrested by the police when he safely made it back to the ground.
There have been so many curious incidents and events associated with Ms. Eiffel’s tower since its construction. The tower brings out the very best and, so often, the greatest eccentricities of the human spirit.
The Eiffel Tower continues to stand today and proudly boasts a distinguished history. There have been many replicas of it built around the world. The tower at Blackpool in England is a famous half scale impersonation. Recently, the Eiffel Tower received its 250,000,000 visitor. The short life expectancy of the Tower just after its construction in 1889 has evolved into a unique permanence. It is a man made feature that defines the character and culture of Paris for the whole world. The Eiffel Tower was declared to be an official ‘Historical Monument’ formerly by the French Minister of Cultural Affairs, Andre Malraux in 1964.
Take a look at the Eiffel Tower if you ever find yourself in Paris. Go right to the top if you dare but take something French in a glass perhaps before you do. You may well need something to calm your nervous system and intensify your sense of adventure. It will be one of those great life events.