Today in Transportation History – 1923: The Death of a Great Engineer

French civil engineer Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, who achieved international renown for creating the landmark tower bearing his name but also carved out a substantive legacy in transportation, died in Paris at the age of 91. He was listening to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony at the time.

“Although Eiffel was known to America principally for the tower which despite the progress in engineering during the last twenty-five years remains the highest structure in world, he was renowned in Europe for the last sixty years as one of the most brilliant engineers of the century,” reported the New York Times a couple of days after his death. “Some of the biggest bridges and viaducts in France owe their existence to his engineering genius, and the great railway bridge of Porto [the Portugal-based Maria Pia Bridge] with its 160 meter [520 foot] span, was his work.”

Eiffel was born in the city of Dijon in eastern France in 1832. A few months after graduating from the Paris-area École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in 1855, he obtained his first paid position as the private secretary for railway engineer Charles Nepveu. While Nepveu’s company went bankrupt shortly afterward, Nepveu found a new job for Eiffel in which he designed a bridge for the Saint Germaine railway. Nepveu subsequently became managing director of two factories owned by the Compagnie Belge de Matériels de Chemin de Fer and hired Eiffel as head of the research department.

Bordeaux Bridge, Eiffel’s first major work

In 1857, Nepveu obtained a contract to construct a bridge over the river Garonne at Bordeaux in southwestern France to connect the Paris-Bordeaux railway line to railway lines running to the communes of Sète and Bayonne. Eiffel initially oversaw the assembling of metalwork for the bridge, but ultimately took over management of the entire project. This bridge, which was built with such then-innovative techniques as air caissons and hydraulic rams, became Eiffel’s first major work.

Eiffel established himself as an independent consulting engineer in 1865. He further strengthened his reputation as an engineer over the next several years on a variety of projects, many of which involved transportation. Some of his more notable efforts included developing the Maria Pia Bridge; railway stations at Toulouse and Agen in France and Budapest in Hungary; more than 30 locomotives for the government of Egypt; and viaducts for a railway line between Lyon and Bordeaux. Eiffel also earned considerable acclaim for building the Garabit viaduct, a railway arch bridge spanning the river Truyère in a mountainous region of south-central France. By the time he built the Eiffel Tower and helped design the Statue of Liberty during the 1880s, he was already highly regarded for his engineering achievements.

Illustration of Eiffel’s lock design from a contemporary magazine

Not all of Eiffel’s transportation-oriented endeavors turned out well. His reputation was badly damaged when he became involved in plans for a French canal across the Panama Isthmus and found himself entangled in political and financial scandals stemming from that ill-fated enterprise. (The United States eventually took over the construction of the waterway and completed it as the Panama Canal.)

In his later years, Eiffel helped refurbish his reputation through his seminal contributions to another form of transportation. His studies and experiments involving aviation proved vital to the Wright Brothers and others seeking to make human flight a more full-fledged reality. In 1913, the Smithsonian Institution awarded Eiffel the Samuel P. Langley Medal for Aerodynamics. “His researches . . . on the resistance of the air in connection with aviation are especially valuable,” said Alexander Graham Bell in presenting the medal. “They have given engineers the data for designing and constructing flying machines upon sound, scientific principles.”

For more information on Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gustave_Eiffel .

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