Time travelling with Gustave Eiffel

March 31st 2017 — On the 128th anniversary of Paris’ most famous tower, I find myself not in Paris, but in Porto, Portugal. After two days of ISO committee meetings, I have some free time to head down to the Douro River with its famous Dom Luis I bridge. The bridge was designed by Théophile Seyrig and opened on October 31st 1886. At 172 metres it was then the largest single span arch bridge in the world and, with a 3,000 ton wrought iron construction of twin horizontal decks, sandwiching and supported by a mighty arch, it dominates the views.

A mile upstream, and nine years further back in time, is the Maria Pia bridge. Opened in 1877 it was a previous holder of the longest span record at 160 metres and was also worked on by Seyrig, but this time with his business partner – Gustave Eiffel. A great example of Eiffel’s work, combining elegance and efficiency, it was less than two thirds of the cost of alternative designs proposed and relied on leading edge engineering techniques including manufacturing methods and detailed force analysis.

Maria Pia bridge  |  Source: Concierge.2C via Wikimedia Commons

Anybody can build a bridge that stands, they say, but it takes an engineer to build a bridge that barely stands, and peer review of Eiffel’s proposed design was positive but not 100% re-assuring: “The complete study of a structure of this size presents great difficulties. The methods of calculation known up until now can only be applied in practise with the aid of hypotheses which depart from established fact to a greater or lesser extent, and thus render the projected results uncertain.” 140 years on, the bridge remains, having outlasted the trains that ran over it.

Fast forward back to March 31st, but this time to 1889, and the opening of the Tour Eiffel at the Paris World Fair. The tallest building in the world at the time – and for another 40 years – it is 300 metres tall, comprises 18,000 parts specified in 5,300 engineering drawings and took two years to build. Now the most visited paid monument in the world, the tower initially enjoyed a notoriously mixed reception.

The Eiffel Tower under construction, 1888

Guy de Maupassant ate dinner every evening there, not because he was a fan but because it was the only place in Paris where he did not have to look at it, and construction had only just begun when protests appeared in the newspaper Le Temps. “Writers, painters, sculptors, architects, passionate lovers of the beauty of Paris” protested “with all their might against the construction… in the very heart of our capital, of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower.”

Engineers are as much the champions of elegance as writers, painters and architects

Gustave Eiffel’s reply was also published in Le Temps: “I believe that the Tower will have its own beauty. Do people think that because we are engineers, beauty plays no part in what we build? That if we aim for the solid and lasting, that we don’t at the same time do our utmost to achieve elegance? Are actual conditions of strength not always compatible with the hidden conditions of harmony?”

I like this proposition that engineers are as much the champions of elegance as writers, painters and architects. Although rarely specified as a design input requirement, elegance is a goal that we often strive for – subconsciously or otherwise – in the engineering solutions we develop. There is a sense that those ‘hidden conditions of harmony’ bestow some form of efficiency and integrity on a design and, if given any choice, an elegant solution invariably feels like the right one to go for. Whether for a bridge, a tower, or a medical device, I think this is as true today as it was 128 years ago.

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