Childhood & Early Life
He was born as Bonickhausen dit Eiffel on December 15, 1832 in Djion, France, as the eldest child of Alexandre Bonickhausen dit Eiffel and Catherine-Mélanie. The family came from a region near the Eifel Mountains and adopted the name ‘Eiffel’.
His father an ex-military man and served the French Army as an administrator and his mother was in the charcoal business that was passed on to her from her parents. Later, his father left his job to join the business. As his mother had to look after the business, he spent most of his childhood with his grandmother.
He studied at the ‘Lycée Royal’ in Dijon and earned his baccalauréats in science and humanities. Gustave's uncle Jean-Baptiste Mollerat and his chemist friend Michel Perret played an instrumental role in educating Gustave on varied subjects including philosophy, theology, chemistry and mining.
To prepare himself for the different entrance exams of engineering colleges, he joined the ‘Collège Sainte-Barbe’ in Paris. He cleared entrance exams of ‘École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures’ and ‘École polytechnique’ both of which were renowned schools in France. He enrolled at the ‘École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures’ and studied chemistry. In 1855, he completed his graduation earning the thirteenth position out of eighty candidates.
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After completing his graduation he did an unpaid job for a few months to assist his brother-in-law in a foundry. He got his first paid job as the secretary of Charles Nepveu, a railway engineer.
When the company of Nepveu became bankrupt, he arranged for a bridge design work for Eiffel that was to be constructed for the ‘Saint Germaine’ railway. ‘Compagnie Belge de Matériels de Chemin de Fer’, the company that took over a few businesses of Nepveu made him managing director of its two factories and eventually Eiffel headed the research department.
In 1857, Nepveu got a contract for construction of a railway bridge over the river Garonne, Bordeaux, and Eiffel was given the job of assembling the metalwork. Later from March 1860 Eiffel managed the whole project following Nepveu’s resignation. Eiffel was made the chief engineer of ‘Compagnie Belge de Matériels de Chemin de Fer’ and was further promoted. As the business of the company declined, he resigned in 1865.
He started working independently as a consulting engineer and got involved in construction of the railway station at Toulouse and at Agen. In 1866, he got a contract of supervising construction of locomotives for the government of Egypt and in that pursuit he visited Egypt.
His reputation as an architect and civil engineer got him more projects and he established his own workshop in 1866 and undertook projects in different countries. One such project was all-metal construction of the church of San Marcos in Arica, Chile. Various parts of the project were manufactured in France and shipped to the site to be assembled there. His technical innovations were path breaking (specially prefabrication of cantilever constructions).
On October 6, 1868, he along with Théophile Seyrig formed the company ‘Eiffel et Cie’ and received several important projects.
The Exposition Universelle in 1878 cemented his position as a leading engineer of his time. Many of the buildings of the exhibition were constructed by him.
He and Théophile Seyrig terminated the partnership in 1879 and the company was re-christened as ‘Compagnie des Établissements Eiffel’. The company bagged the project of constructing a railway bridge, Garabit Viaduct in France in that very year. The bridge that was completed in 1884 was considered the highest bridge in the world at that time adding another feather in Eiffel’s cap.
He was contacted by Auguste Bartholdi in 1881 to design the interior metallic structure of the ‘Statue of Liberty’ in Liberty Island, New York, United States after the sudden death of its engineer Eugène Viollet-Le-Duc in 1879. The parts of the statue were first assembled at his workshop in Paris and after checking it was again dismantled and shipped in parts to the US for its final assembly. The statue was opened in 1886.
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Advancing in his career in 1886, he designed a dome for the ‘Nice Observatory’, an astronomical observatory in Nice, France. The dome which was noted for its movable feature was the largest of its kind in the world at that time.
His most noted masterpiece that bears his name and went on to become one of his prominent works is the ‘Eiffel Tower’. Emile Nouguier and Maurice Koechlin first made a design of the tower that would become the centrepiece of the 1889 Exposition Universelle. The work of the tower began in 1887 which included 2,500,000 rivets and 12,000 other components, all designed in such a way that when assembled would handle wind pressure. Economically feasible, the structure if melted would occupy only about two and a half inches of its base.
He took two years to construct the Eiffel Tower, whose height is 984 feet. It is not only a prominent tourist attraction in France but is also considered a work of art today by the Parisans and critics.
He earned a contract in 1887 for building locks for the Panama Canal. His reputation was hurt after he was charged of misappropriation of funds along with Ferdinand De Lesseps, the head of the ‘French Panama Canal Company’ and Lesseps’s son following liquidation of the company. On February 9, 1893 he was found guilty and sentenced for two years in prison along with a fine of 20,000 francs. A further appeal at the ‘Cour de Cassation’ however acquitted him of all charges and obligations.
The construction of the Eiffel tower infused in him the interest for aerodynamics. He built an aerodynamic laboratory in 1905 at the base of the tower and in 1909 constructed his first ever wind tunnel there. Post retirement from engineering he devoted the rest of his life 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 ‘Resistance of the Air and Aviation’.
Personal Life & Legacy
He got married to Marie Gaudelet on July 8th, 1862. The couple remained married for fifteen years and had five children together (three girls, and two boys) before Marie caught pneumonia and died in 1887. Gustave never married again.
On December 27, 1923, he died while in his mansion on ‘Rue Rabelais’ in Paris and was buried in ‘Levallois-Perret Cemetery’ in the family tomb.