The Tower of Psychobabble

The Point of the Eiffel Tower

Expensive toy, suicide magnet and spy base, few national monuments say more about France than la Tour d’Eiffel.

No one wanted it, everyone hated it. The only reason it was built was that the general manager of the 1889 Paris Exposition, was bribed to select the design from seven hundred others by engineer Gustav Eiffel, who did not design it anyway but needed a major project to divert attention from certain charges pending against him, specifically the bribery of public officials. So the Eiffel Tower was born.

A public tender for the project was announced in May 1886 with a two-week time limit. Eiffel’s design, actually drawn up by his associates Emile Nouguier and Maurice Koechlin a year before, was the only credible submission finished in time (others included a lighthouse, a “Temple of the Sun”, a giant water sprinkler to assist Paris during drought and, since the Exposition was supposed to commemorate the centenary of the 1789 French Revolution, a towering guillotine). Eiffel won the contract along with 1.5 million francs of public funds. 

In January 1887 three hundred workers began construction on the tower and completed it two years, two months and five days later. On 21 March 1889 it was inaugurated by a motley bunch of international celebrities including the British Prince of Wales, Buffalo Bill and Thomas Edison. They had to walk a large proportion of the 1,665 steps to the top since the American Otis Elevator Company had refused to bribe French procurement officials and had its bid to build the elevator rejected. However, no French company had could meet the contract so the work went back to Otis which completed the job by mid-June, four months after the Exposition opened. 

That day, Eiffel wrote on a woman’s fan: “I have created a 300 metre-high flagpole for the French flag.” He had reason to celebrate. During construction, it became clear that construction costs far exceeded the public money allocated. Eiffel’s company, which had deliberately under-budgeted, offered to meet the shortfall on condition the City of Paris give it sole rights to manage the Tower for twenty years. In the first year, two million paying customers visited the Tower and Eiffel paid off his debt. After running costs, the next nineteen years were pure profit.

In 2004, the Tower welcomed 6,230,050 visitors. It is Europe’s most popular tourist attraction. It was not always so popular. During construction, three hundred artists, writers, intellectuals and architects, one for each metre of the edifice, selected themselves on the basis of their worldwide reputation (admittedly, most were world-famous only in France) to issue a public condemnation of the project. One of them, the author Guy de Maupassant was caught by the others having lunch in the Tower’s restaurant, but saved his reputation with the defence: “Well, it’s the only place in Paris where you can’t see the thing”. 

It was meant to be temporary. Designed for demolition after the Paris Exposition, its life was extended for twenty years so Eiffel could pay off its costs. In 1909, there were serious proposals to turn it into scrap. The management company quickly found uses for it: a wireless antenna was erected in 1908 and television masts in 1958: Citroen used it as a giant advertising hoarding, and a meteorological station – unmanned – is installed on the third level. The French intelligence services have historically used the Tower as a vantage point for radio and telephone eavesdropping.

All of these uses, points out Colin Wright in his “Paris: Biography of a City” (2004), could have been achieved in other facilities just as cheaply. In fact, in terms of pure utility, the Eiffel Tower has traditionally only one use: as a “suicide magnet”.

After 350 fatal jumps (and two survived attempts), the French press campaigned for a long while to have suicide barriers built into what Le Figaro newspaper called “the cursed tower” but were opposed by the managing company on the basis of cost. 

In 1966, it bowed to pressure and built steel-wire fences around each of the tower’s three platforms. “Now suicide candidates will just have to throw themselves into the Seine,” said the official in charge of tower safety. A further twenty people have jumped since then with the last suicide in May 2004 gouging a 30-centimetre-deep trench in the tower’s car park.

Always there, looming but meaningless, the tower can bring out the shadowier side of humanity. It did in Victor Lustig. In 1925, he noted a newspaper article claiming that the government was exploring the idea of demolishing the tower rather than stump up for expensive repairs. So Lustig had stationery printed up and personally “appointed” himself to the position of Deputy Director General of the Ministère de Postes et Télégraphes. He then invited scrap iron dealers to tender for the job. 

His next step showed a masterly understanding of the dynamics of French business. He invited one of the tenderers with the improbable name of André Poisson to dinner at the Crillon Hotel. There, he described the life of a public servant such as himself, one in which he was expected to dress and entertain on a lavish scale, yet paid a small pittance. Poisson immediately handed over a large bribe and left, confidently expecting the arrival of the government contract. It never came. Yet Lustig made no effort to hide, knowing full well that Poisson would be too embarrassed to reveal the fraud. He was so confident that he sold the tower a second time. The new mark went to the police, the matter exploded in the press and Lustig, with the gendarmes hot on his heels, had to hop aboard Queen Mary and beat a swift retreat to the United States.

Perhaps the last word should go to one of the “money-grubbing Americans” whose tourist dollars the tower was designed to attract, the writer and lyricist of Don Black: “Symbologists often remark that France - a country renowned for machismo, womanising, and diminutive insecure leaders like Napoleon and Pepin the Short – could not have chosen a more apt national emblem than a thousand-foot phallus.”


The Ridiculous Tower

“The Eiffel Tower, which even money-grubbing Americans, we can be certain, would not want, is the dishonour of Paris. Everyone knows that, everyone says it, and everyone is profoundly upset – and we are only the weak echo of public opinion, which is rightly alarmed... [about] this vertiginuously ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black factory chimney.” Public petition signed by 300 French intellectuals, artists and “passionate lovers of beauty”, 1887.

Towering Achievement

Built: 1887-1889 for 1889 Universal Exhibition and Centennial of the French Revolution. 

Height: 300.51 meters (986 feet) (+/- 15 cm depending on temperature)

Height including TV antenna: 320.755 meters (1,052 feet)

Maximum sway in wind: 12 cm

Rivets: 2,500,000

Steel pieces: 18,038

Weight: 7,300 tons (1,000 tons removed during 1990's renovation)

Steps to Top: 1,665 

Steps walkable by visitors 704 (Ground to 2nd floor)

Base: 412 feet square, although also noted as about 2.5 acres 

Paint: 50 tons of “Eiffel Tower Brown” every 7 years (last paint job completed 2003)

Visibility: 42 miles

Cost: 7,800,000 gold francs (in 1889)

Outstanding Erector

Eiffel, Alexandre Gustave, 1832-1923, French engineer. A noted constructor of bridges and viaducts, he also designed the Eiffel Tower and the internal structure of the Statue of Liberty. Initially charged with corruption in the 1888 scandal of Ferdinand de Lesseps's failed Panama Canal project, he was cleared of all wrongdoing by a French appeals court in 1893. Immensely rich, he spent the rest of his years experimenting in aerodynamics by dropping objects out of the window of his own custom-built laboratory on the tower’s third level.

“A Hole-Riddled Suppository” – The Intellectuals Verdict

"This belfry skeleton”, Paul Verlaine, French poet and absinthe addict

"This mast of iron gymnasium apparatus, incomplete, confused and deformed”, François Coppée, French poet and anti-semite

"This high and skinny pyramid of iron ladders, this giant ungainly skeleton upon a base that looks built to carry a colossal monument of Cyclops, but which just peters out into a ridiculous thin shape like a factory chimney", Guy de Maupassant, French writer and certified lunatic

“A half-built factory pipe, a carcass waiting to be fleshed out with freestone or brick, a funnel-shaped grill, a hole-riddled suppository", Joris-Karl Huysmans, French writer and enema fan


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