Think of Paris, and it's hard not to imagine the Eiffel Tower. Slender with sloping lines that reach into the sky, the structure seems to embody the elegance that defines the City of Lights.
The Eiffel Tower has been towering over Paris since it was constructed in 1889 for the Exposition Universelle. At the time of its construction, it was the tallest building in the world. Since then, it has been many things: a tourist attraction, billboard, and site of scientific experimentation and broadcast communications. Besides its shifting function, the tower itself has physically shifted over time. It has also witnessed dramatic events and notable historical figures.
The Eiffel Tower's story is also one of scammers, daredevils, shameless advertisers, and visionary engineers - all of their stories are imprinted onto the very beams that make up the structure.
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The Tower Once Hosted A Science Lab And A Wind Tunnel
Gustave Eiffel envisioned the tower to have many functions beyond an aesthetic structure or a tourist attraction in the city of Paris. In particular, he believed it could be a useful building for science. As he saw the structure:
It will be for everyone an observatory and a laboratory the likes of which has never before been available to science. It is the reason why, from day one, all of our scientists have encouraged me with their utmost sympathies.
To that end, he conducted experiments on a number of subjects and used his personal apartment as a scientific laboratory.
Among Eiffel's chief interests was the study of aerodynamics. As scholar Bruno Chanetz recounted:
In 1908 [...] Gustave Eiffel conceived a very ingenious drop test machine to study the drag of solids. He installed the device on the eponymous tower's second floor, taking advantage of its 115 m[eters] in height. His first studies, awarded by the French Academy of Sciences in 1908, allowed him to fund the fundamental laws of air resistance. In this period, with the growth of aviation, Eiffel brought new ideas and his knowledge of aerodynamics led him to understand the efforts of the air on a solid.
To support scientific inquiry, Eiffel even added a laboratory to the tower in 1909. It was essentially a wind tunnel that enabled scientists to study aerodynamics. The wind tunnel didn't stay at the tower for long, however - three years later, it moved to another part of Paris.
Several people conducted their own experiments featuring the Eiffel Tower, with mixed success. In 1901, Alberto Santos-Dumont sailed an airship around the Eiffel Tower - two years before the Wright brothers flew a plane at Kitty Hawk. Eleven years later, tailor Franz Reichelt developed a parachute suit and tested it by leaping off the Eiffel Tower - he didn't survive.
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Gustave Eiffel Didn't Single-Handedly Design The Tower Bearing His Name
The Eiffel Tower is named after Gustave Eiffel, the guy who designed the tower, right? Well, no. It's true that the tower is named after Gustave Eiffel. But it's a misconception that he designed it.
Born in 1832, Gustave Eiffel grew up to become an engineer. He began the design company Compagnie des Établissements Eiffel in 1879. Several years later, some of Eiffel's employees began designing what would become the Eiffel Tower: engineers Émile Nouguier and Maurice Koechlin and architect Stephen Sauvestre. Eiffel then edited and altered their design.
Eiffel may not have single-handedly designed the Parisian tower that bears his name, but he also contributed to another 19th-century treasure: the Statue of Liberty.
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The Tower Was Used As A Giant Billboard Advertisement For A French Car Manufacturer
The Eiffel Tower has been many things over the course of its long life. In 1889, it was the entrance to the Exposition Universelle, a world's fair that marked the centennial of the French Revolution. It's also been a broadcasting station, site of resistance, symbol of romance, tourist attraction, and scientific laboratory.
But between 1925 and 1934, it became something that would likely surprise 21st-century tourists: a giant billboard. During that time, the French auto maker Citroën paid for the rights to affix its name to the Eiffel Tower. According to scholar Jef I. Richards, the 250,000 light bulbs that illuminated the letters were "so bright that on his history-making trans-Atlantic flight of 1927, Charles Lindbergh used this ad for navigation into Paris." Indeed, the lights were visible from a distance of 60 miles.
It wasn't the first time the company featured the Eiffel Tower in its publicity stunts. In 1922, the auto manufacturer marked the opening of the Paris Motor Show by hiring a pilot to skywrite "Citroën" near the tower.
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The French Put Parrots On Top Of The Tower During WWI To Serve As An Aerial Detection System
Over the course of its life, the Eiffel Tower has played host to millions of visitors. Not all of them have been human.
During WWI, the Eiffel Tower - like many public and private institutions and buildings - was drafted into the war effort. Parisians tried to determine the structure's best uses. One of their experiments: using the tower as a base for parrots.
These weren't just any parrots. The idea was that, if stationed high above Paris, the birds could alert the city to the approach of war planes. As writer Jilly Cooper recounted:
It was found that the birds gave warning of aeroplanes or airships twenty minutes before they arrived. The parrots, however, unlike the horses at the front [...], could never discriminate between German and Allied planes, and the scheme was scrapped.
Though the parrot plan didn't work out, the Eiffel Tower still played a significant role for the Allied forces. The tower transmitted wireless messages - and even picked up on German communications to aid Allied intelligence.
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An American Flying Ace Claimed To Have Chased A German Plane Through The Tower's Arches During WWII
Strolling beneath the Eiffel Tower's arches is a popular pastime. But during WWII, one American officer didn't just perambulate between the tower's arches - he flew between them.
Virginia-born William Overstreet joined the Air Corps shortly after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. As a pilot in the European theater of war, he experienced some harrowing moments. Among them: chasing a German plane beneath the Eiffel Tower.
As Overstreet recalled, he was pursuing the plane when the pair stumbled on the landmark:
He figured I'd try to get around and he'd have time to get away. He was wrong. I was right behind him, right under the Eiffel Tower with him. And when he pulled up, I did get him. But that's a huge space. That's not close at all. It's plenty of room to go under the Eiffel Tower.
The German plane didn't survive the pursuit, but Overstreet's did; he made it back to base.
Overstreet's incredible flight through the Parisian landmark has inspired skepticism in some. But that never bothered him. "A lot of people don't believe it," he said in an interview with a local TV station in Lynchburg, VA. "I don't blame 'em."
His exploits earned Overstreet the French Legion of Honor.
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It Overtook The Washington Monument As The Tallest Building In The World
When the Eiffel Tower officially opened on March 31, 1889, it claimed an important title: It became the tallest building in the world at the time. Stretching 984 feet into the sky, the building towered over the rest of Paris - and every other structure that human hands had constructed.
The Eiffel Tower took the title of "world's tallest building" away from the Washington Monument. Built in Washington, DC, to honor the memory of George Washington, the Washington Monument was only around 555 feet tall. Since the Washington Monument had been built in 1884, it only enjoyed its status for five years before the Eiffel Tower took its laurels.
The Eiffel Tower at least got to enjoy its status longer than the Washington Monument. It wasn't until the construction of the Chrysler Building in New York City a few decades later that the title again returned to the United States.
By comparison, the Chrysler Building stands at 1,046 feet and towered over the Parisian structure by a relatively modest 62 feet when it was built.