Eiffel and genius

Some people are outliers. Today we think about Elon Musk. History is full of such people. What makes them different and what can we learn from them?

I want to discuss today a less known genius Gustave Eiffel, who was like Elon Musk one hundred years ago. Reading or researching biographies is a nice speedreading and memory training, and I urge you to do that from time to time. Treat this article as a demonstration of speedreading and speedwriting from this wikipedia entry.  The entire project from reading to publication took me two hours to complete, and I did not work too hard. Drank a small teapot of silver-needle tea in the process.

The monuments

I start from  the end and quote from Wikipedia:

The growth of the railway network had an immense effect on people’s lives, but although the enormous number of bridges and other work undertaken by Eiffel were an important part of this, the two works that did most to make him famous are the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower, both projects of immense symbolic importance and today internationally recognized landmarks. The Tower is also important because of its role in establishing the aesthetic potential of structures whose appearance is largely dictated by practical considerations.

Knowing that two of the most iconic structures in the word were constructed by one person is quite enough to ask: WHY?

What made this person so special, and what made him so lucky as to get both commissions? Also, did he become rich as a result, or poor? Was he happy? This is not a trivial question. We have Edison and Tesla, one genius rich and happy, the other almost deranged.  Anthony Gaudi was working roughly the same area and years as Eiffel, and he died poor and miserable.

Initial conditions

Certain times and places are magnets for great minds. Italian renaissance was a magnet for artists. America in the 19th century was a beacon of engineering: telephone and sewing machine are some examples. Today we have Silicon Valley and its high-tech superpowers. At the beginning of the 20th century, Paris was the place to be for an artist or a designer.

Eiffel was lucky enough to be born in France in 1832 and acquire a prestigious degree in Paris. He could learn engineering or architecture, but instead studies something which we would call industrial design with specialization in chemistry. He graduated 13th in a class of 80. Notice that the most successful people seldom graduate first in their class. This has something to do with flexibility and learning from failures.

His first job was as a secretary for an entrepreneur that went bankrupt. As a mentor, this entrepreneur found a job in bridge design for his young protegee. So you will not be surprised that both the Eiffel Tower and the statue of liberty look inside like rotated railroad bridges. The multidisciplinary ability to switch between expertise when necessary is often one of the signs of the more creative individual.

Technical innovation

Since Eiffel did not have a rigid background in construction, he fearlessly applied new techniques like air caissons and hydraulic rams. He was successful. Then he became a consulting engineer overseeing metalwork for several big projects. Why metalwork? It may be because his mother inherited a charcoal business, expanded it, and sold for a lot of money.  Sons often inherit their mother’s intellect and learn from their parents how to do things. So a certain affinity to engineering and business could be expected.

In 1866 (age ~34) Eiffel borrowed money and opened his own workshop, taking various construction jobs in France and in Chile. It is interesting to notice that the San Marcos church Eiffel build in Chile was an all-metal prefabricated building, manufactured in France and shipped to South America in pieces to be assembled on site. Does that sound like the Statue of Liberty? Well, that is the man after all… He applied and improved the same techniques. Basically, when he was very young, he did a lot of different things until one of the things that he worked on inspired him. From that point on, he is laser-sharp in his expertise.

To enlarge his business Eiffel formed a partnership with another graduate from his prestigious school. This is probably the best reason to go to a prestigious school with a strong alumni organization. The pair got commissioned significantly more jobs than one of them could manage. They were building bridges and viaducts all over Europe.  How come?

Apparently, they reused innovative construction techniques of prefabricated structures and bolts rather than rivets. With skilled crews thet could easily outbid all the competitors. So it was probably a very effective partnership, although it lasted only till 1879. Notice timing: this was the VERY time Europeans got engaged in the quick growth of their railroads.


At the age of 23, Eiffel had seen the second World’s Fair in Paris. His mother actually bought him a ticket. At the age of  34 he helped design the exhibition hall for the Exposition Universelle which was to be held in 1867. In order to carry out this work, Eiffel and Henri Treca conducted valuable research on the structural properties of cast iron, definitively establishing the modulus of elasticity applicable to compound castings. It is only natural that Eiffel had both the motivation and the expertise to build presumptuous projects.

Once again I quote from wikipedia:

In 1881 Eiffel was contacted by Auguste Bartholdi who was in need of an engineer to help him to realize the Statue of Liberty. Some work had already been carried out by Eugène Viollet-Le-Duc, but he had died in 1879. Eiffel was selected because of his experience with wind stresses. Eiffel devised a structure consisting of a four-legged pylon to support the copper sheeting which made up the body of the statue. The entire statue was erected at the Eiffel works in Paris before being dismantled and shipped to the United States.

Not exactly a genius step, but a very lucky opportunity perfectly executed.  A quick computation puts Eiffel’s age around 49. Apparently, there was a period of a couple of years when nobody was found to deal with the project. Eiffel was probably not the first person to be approached. Simply by that time he had more experience than others and was not afraid to take his chances with ambitious projects.

The design of the Eiffel Tower was originated by Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier, who had discussed ideas for a centerpiece for the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. The structure was built, and Eiffel purchased the relevant patents. Notice that once again Eiffel joins into something originated by others, but only he has the drive and expertise to make it truly immense.

Eiffel’s tower in … Barcelona?

OK, I cheat a bit. I have some prior knowledge and experience. I saw in a TV show three months before writing this article that Eiffel actually wanted to build the tower in Barcelona. I added that to the reading diary as something to research later on. That was the trigger for me to read more about the subject. Below is a summary of a 10-min research.

Let us start with the engineers that came up with the idea of the tower. For example, Maurice Koechlin was a Swiss-born (1856) structural engineer, who later migrated from Zurich to Prussia, and next in Eiffel’s company in 1879. He was not lucky enough to have the resources, but probably came up with the idea of the tower. Quite likely he needed someone experienced inside the company. Émile Nouguier was working in Eiffel’s company from its inception in 1867 and he was a great civil engineer. So both of them pitched the design to a less than enthusiastic big boss. As they went into details, the boss became excited and the rest is history,

In 1888, one year before Paris there was an expo in Barcelona. Eiffel actually pitched the local officials. Rumors say that the locals hated the 300m metal structure as an abomination and asked politely the French not to through their garbage in Spanish territory. Notice, we are talking about rumors 150 years old. Murky…

A year later, Eiffel pulled some strings of the French officials. I do not really know which strings were pulled. The Parisians absolutely hated it. Eventually, he was allowed to spend his own money to construct the tower and charge the admission fee. The project was very expensive but paid off within three years. At least that’s the rumor.

How expensive was the construction of the tower? Around 7.8 million francs. The link above has a very detailed analysis. The iron cost around half of the sum. The mechanical parts and montage cost roughly a quarter of the sum. Go directly to the end of the last table. Koechlin and Nougier got a substantial sum.

Based upon the French gold standard of one franc equaling 0.3g gold, one 1880 franc works out to $4 today’s dollars. Today the Eiffel Tower is valued at 400 billion dollars. Barcelona’s the Sagrada Família by Gaudi is still incomplete.

The rest of the life

Not everything goes well even for the most successful entrepreneurs. Eiffel was involved in the Panama Canal construction and misused some of the money. He was sentenced for two years in prison but later acquitted on appeal.  I can only guess that some judges became very rich as a result.

Maybe this is the reason, Eiffel returned to science. I quote:

After his retirement from the Compagnie des Etablissements Eiffel, Eiffel went on to do important work in meteorology and aerodynamics. Eiffel’s interest in these areas was a consequence of the problems he had encountered with the effects of wind forces on the structures he had built.

These experiments have given engineers the data for designing and constructing flying machines upon sound, scientific principles. Hey, what? We have airplanes because the Statue of Liberty is placed on a windy island? Quite possibly so… The work of genius and his money can make all the difference.

My takeaway

Geniuses that try to do things alone often fail. Successful geniuses usually build strong companies, and are very effective in dirty politics. Quite often they do not initiate the best ideas associated with their name. Instead, they concentrate and execute the ideas of many creative and successful people under their name. Compare with Edison. We forgive our genius entrepreneurs for their unethical and unpopular steps and often forget the real originators of our great projects.

Do I like the certain moral flexibility associated with this sort of success? Hell, no. Do I like the monuments themselves? I think the massive tower visible everywhere in the city is offensive to everything else the city has to offer. For me, it’s like stinky cheese. I love the taste but not the smell, and both are very noticeable. It is still one of the seven wonders of the modern world and possibly the most recognizable structure. The fact that I feel all of those things 150 years after the ideation of the project, only makes it more genius in my eyes.

Eiffel caricature

Get 4 Free Sample Chapters of the Key To Study Book

Get access to advanced training, and a selection of free apps to train your reading speed and visual memory

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.