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Alexander Gustave Eiffel: The 'magician of iron’

By HT School,

This French engineer and designer is the man behind the construction of famous Eiffel Tower in Paris.

In 1913, the Smithsonian Institution honoured Eiffel with the Samuel P. Langley Medal for Aerodromics Award. Illustration: Biswajit Debnath

Born as Bonickhausen dit Eiffel on December 15, 1832 in Djion, France, as the eldest child of Alexandre Bonickhausen dit Eiffel and Catherine-Melanie. They hailed from the region near the Eifel mountain ranges that corresponds to present-day Germany and Belgium. Their family name was probably influenced by this.

He studied at the Lycee Royal in Dijon and secured baccalaureates in science and humanities. Gustave’s uncle Jean-Baptiste Mollerat and his chemist friend Michel Perret helped educate Gustave in subjects as diverse as philosophy, theology, chemistry and mining.

To prepare for engineering, he joined the College Sainte-Barbe in Paris. He cleared entrance exams of the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures’ and the Ecole Polytechnique, which were among France’s renowned schools. In 1855, he completed graduation and was adjudged 13th among 80 candidates.

After graduation, Eiffel assisted his brother-in-law in a foundry for a while before his first paid job as the secretary of railway engineer Charles Nepveu. When Nepveu’s company became bankrupt, he arranged a bridge design work for Eiffel for the Saint Germaine railway. The firm, Compagnie Belge de Materiels de Chemin de Fer made Nepveu the managing director of two of its factories. Eventually, Eiffel headed the firm’s research department.

In 1857, Nepveu won a contract for the construction of a railway bridge over the river Garonne in Bordeaux. Eiffel was assigned the task of assembling the metalwork. Later in 1860, Eiffel managed the entire project after Nepveu’s resignation. He become the chief engineer of Compagnie Belge de Materiels de Chemin de Fer but relinquished his post due to the decline in company’s business.

He began working independently as a consulting engineer and was involved in construction of railway stations at Toulouse and Agen. In 1866, he won the contract to supervise the construction of locomotives for the government of Egypt. In 1878, the Exposition Universelle cemented his position as a leading engineer of his time. Many of the buildings in the exhibition complex were built by him. In 1886, he designed a dome for the Nice Observatory. The dome, which stood out for its movable feature, was at that time the world’s largest. While Eiffel designed and built many great structures during his career, his most famous and iconic structure, that bears his name, is the Eiffel Tower. Emile Nouguier and Maurice Koechlin first designed the tower that would become the centre-piece of the 1889 Exposition Universelle. Work on the tower began in 1887. It comprised 12,000 components and 2,500,000 rivets, assembled and built to withstand the high wind pressure.

Awards and achievements
In 1913, the Smithsonian Institution honoured Eiffel with the Samuel P. Langley Medal for Aerodromics Award.

Personal life
Eiffel got married to Marie Gaudelet on July 8, 1862 and the couple had five children. On December 27, 1923, he died aged 91 and was buried in the Levallois-Perret Cemetery.

Interesting Facts
The construction of the Eiffel Tower infused in Gustave Eiffel the interest for aerodynamics. He built an aerodynamic laboratory in 1905 at the base of the tower. In 1909, built his first wind tunnel there.

The Statue of Liberty, is a symbol of friendship between France and US. The statue was designed by the French sculptor Frederick Auguste Bartholdi. Eiffel built its metal framework.

Eiffel’s reputation as an architect and civil engineer brought him several more projects. In the year 1866, he established his own workshop and undertook many projects in different countries.

After retirement from engineering, Eiffel devoted his time studying meteorology and aerodynamics. In 1912, he moved his set up from the tower to a new location at Auteuil and established a larger research laboratory there. One of his noted books on aerodynamics, among the many he wrote, is titled Resistance of the Air and Aviation. Among his numerous bridges, the most famous is the Maria Pia bridge, Oporto, Portugal.

Sources:, wikipedia,

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