A Journalist's Archive

Eiffel's Tower
Jill Jonnes
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

Step into Jill Jonnes’ time machine. Destination: Paris. Year: 1889.

I kid you not readers, “Eiffel’s Tower” is so well researched that you will find yourself among the mob of Parisian onlookers gawking as Gustave Eiffel’s steel monstrosity takes shape. Will it be ready in time for the Exposition Universelle? Or will it tumble to the ground crushing the exclusive homes in its shadow?

Of course having the advantage of time we know the answers to those questions. But when Eiffel submitted his design for a 1000 foot steel tower few of his countrymen thought the project would be successful. At the time the Washington Monument, soaring to 555 feet, was the tallest structure in the world, and it took almost 40 years to complete. What made a mere French bridge builder think he could top that achievement? Journalists doubted Eiffel’s project would ever be more than a hunk of steel. Artists denounced the design as “hideous.” Parisians cried it would ruin the city’s skyline. Other engineers said the plan was flawed and doomed to collapse. The public outcry over safety concerns forced Eiffel to take out a bond to cover personal property damage both during and after construction.

However, Eiffel wasn’t worried about his design. His major concern was finding a way to cut through French bureaucratic red tape. If he could, he would prove Americans weren’t the only people capable of creating innovative buildings. But trying to overcome French rules was akin to climbing Mt. Everest. First, all the materials for the tower had to be made in France by French workers. With each advancing stage of construction, the workers demanded higher wages. When it came time to install elevators in the tower it was clear only one company, Otis, had the equipment and skill to get the job done. Unfortunately, Otis was an American company. After endless delays and much political persuasion, the French government finally gave in. Yet here’s something Eiffel must be chuckling about in his grave. He had to sign a contract saying the tower would only stand for five years!

But “Eiffel’s Tower” is not only about the maker of Paris’ most famous landmark. Jonnes picked an international event that drew kings, inventors, artists, and entertainers. Her book is truly a “Who’s Who” of characters that shaped the world during the last decade of the 19th century. Here is just a sample of people Jonnes covers: American painter James Whistler, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, New York Herald publisher James Bennett, Thomas Edison, Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and tons of royals including “Bertie,” the Prince of Wales.

I had to google “World’s Fair” to see if the events still take place. They do. But with the advent of television and the internet the fairs have lost most of their luster. During earlier centuries, countries fought to host the event much as nations compete to host the Olympics today. The fairs were meant to bring different cultures together as well as to highlight technological advances. Consider this - at the time most people could only view foreigners in newsprint, the fairs offered a brief opportunity to personally see people from exotic lands. Gauguin, who longed to return to the tropics, was among the Parisians who were drawn to “a bamboo-and-thatch Javanese kampong.” It featured a troop of Hindu girls, 12 to 16 years old, who were decked out in “exquisitely bejeweled costumes,” as they performed temple dances. An Egyptian village, complete with a mosque, white-washed buildings, beautiful mosaics, hand-carved doors, and an outdoor bazaar also drew thousands of tourists. Whether from Morocco, Algeria, China or the American West, participants in the World’s Fair also visited the famous landmarks of Paris, adding color and excitement to the streets of Paris.

In 1889, technology was reshaping the world. It was the “Age of the Machine,” and private industry used the World’s Fair to showcase their latest inventions. Thomas Edison spent hours at his company’s exhibit demonstrating his new phonograph. People could listen to pre-recorded songs and speeches, or they could magically record their own voice. Crowds swarmed into his pavilion, much to the dismay of French officials. After all, in French minds the major goal of the fair was to prove France was better than America.  Now Edison’s phonograph was stealing the show, and darn if people didn’t notice that without his most famous invention, Eiffel’s tower would turn into a dark hulk of metal each evening. Furthermore, for six months preceding the fair posters were plastered all over Paris. They featured an American bison and a cowboy named Col. W. F. Cody. Besides Cody’s name the only words on the poster were “Je Viens.” (I come)

Ah yes, Buffalo Bill Cody was a marketing genius, but the posters infuriated the French because of the lack of information. While they cursed the advertizing gimmick, it was impossible to stay away when Cody descended on Paris with a band of wild Indians, cowboys, 20 buffalo, 198 horses, and a petite sharpshooter named Annie Oakley. Cody’s first performance got off to a bad start because the announcer’s French was so fractured the audience couldn’t understand him. Cody knew something was wrong, so he turned to Oakley to save the day. Oakley recalled, “They sat like icebergs at first. There was no friendly welcome, just a ‘you must show me’ air.” So she did. She melted the audience by plugging every object flung into the sky. When she shot a hole directly through the center of a French coin, the crowd stood up and roared “Bravo, Bravo!”

At times I roared with laughter while reading how little things have changed over time. For instance, French merchants were given carte blanche to increase prices during the fair. The only “caveat” the authorities’ issued was “Do not raise prices so high that the Americans will stop buying.”  Frenchmen have always been able to extract money from our wallets, even while not understanding our French.  Next, none of the government-sponsored exhibits, including America’s, were ready on opening day, yet all of the privately funded ones, such as Edison’s, were.

“Eiffel’s Tower” itself was only completed because Gustave funded the majority of the project. Once complete, the tower had four levels. The first three were equipped with restaurants, gift shops and a promenade. Above them all, level four housed three scientific laboratories used for meteorology studies and a fourth room that was Eiffel’s private apartment. Eiffel played the part of an ambassador during the fair, using his bird’s-eye-view suite to entertain every VIP in town. Some of the royalty included: the Duke of Edinburgh, “czar-to-be” Nicholas II, King George of Greece, and the King of Senegal. Corporate moguls, including Edison, and entertainers were also invited to Eiffel’s perch.

Jonnes peppers the book with photographs of VIPs who visited “Eiffel’s Tower,” along with images of the tower during various phases of construction. She keeps the story moving by alternating between characters, but always maintains the focus on “Eiffel’s Tower.”

“Meet me under the Eiffel Tower,” is a phrase tourists have used for the last 120 years. But without reading Jonnes’ “Eiffel’s Tower” you will never grasp that the structure is not only an engineering marvel, it’s also a tribute to one man’s tenacity. And after all, any person who can overcome French bureaucracy deserves to have their story told. Gustave Eiffel – my hat’s off to you!

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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