From the Archives: Mr. Eiffel Built More Than A Tower

The Eiffel Tower opened to the public 130 year ago this month, a fact that is being celebrated in a low grade way in the news.  And why not?  We need all the good news we can get.

In that spirit, I offer you a piece which originally appeared in History in the Margins in August 2016.

Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, the engineer who designed the Eiffel Tower, reportedly said “I ought to be jealous of the tower.  It is more famous than I am.”

It’s probably true.  Eiffel was a world-famous engineer before he made the tower that bears his name, but not for the kind of things that make a man a household name.  He built his reputation as a bridge designer, though his company also designed and fabricated metal frameworks for buildings like train stations and exhibitions halls.(1)  By the 1880s, Eiffel was the man you called when you had a technical challenge that needed a metals expert.  He designed the railroad station in Budapest, the Bon March department stores in Paris, covered markets, gasworks, iron framing for Notre Dame Cathedral, and prefabricated mobile campaign bridges for the French army.  Not to mention bridges and train stations throughout Europe, Asia and South America.  His work as a whole was known for its lightness, grace and strength–qualities that would come to define the Eiffel Tower.

His most famous project prior to the tower was designing the internal armature for the Statue of Liberty.  Sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi wasn’t sure how to translate his beautiful plaster model of Lady Liberty into a finished statue.  Not only was the proposed statue enormous,(2) but it had to be constructed in such a way that it could be disassembled for transport to New York and reassembled on arrival.  Eiffel was the man for the job.  He proposed the construction of a weigh-bearing iron frame to which thin sheets of copper could be attached, making a lighter, stronger statue.(4)  statue-of-liberty

Eiffel brought that same sense of innovative technique and creative problem solving to the creation of the Eiffel Tower.

The tower was intended to be a temporary installation, built as part of  the Paris World’s Fair of 1889, which celebrated the one-hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution. More than one hundred artists submitted plans to build a monument on the Champs-de-Mars at the entrance to the exhibition.  Eiffel won the commission with his design for a soaring wrought iron tower.

The plan called for more than 18,000 wrought iron pieces and 2.5 millions rivets to be assembled in an open-latticework tower on a four-acre base of reinforced concrete.  Four piers tapered upward and converged at the top, punctuated by two platforms that provided the tower with structural stability and gave exhibition-goers a spot from which to view the city  below them.  Despite its lacy appearance, the only elements of the tower that do not contribute to its structural integrity are the grill work arches that link the bases together, which Eiffel added to reassure visitors that the structure was safe. eiffel-tower

It took two years, two months and five days to build.  On March 31, 1889, with the last rivet in place, Eiffel climbed the 1,710 steps to the top and unfurled an enormous French flag.(5) When complete, Eiffel’s tower rose 986 feet into the sky–making it the tallest structure of its time, a distinction it would hold until the completion of the 1,046-foot Chrysler Building in 1930. The tower was the most popular attraction at the exhibition.  People waited in line for hours for the opportunity to go up.

The tower earned Eiffel the nickname “magician of iron.   It also shaped his future career.  As a result of his experience in building the tower, Eiffel became interested in questions of the impact of wind resistance on buildings. He installed thermometers, barometers and anemometers on the third platform of the tower, which allowed him to monitor weather patterns. He mounted a radio antenna on the building, which he  later used to develop his own radio network. He built a small wind tunnel on the second platform, which he used to experiment with air resistance, including the creation of an equation for propeller design that helped French engineers make improvements to the new flying machines.  When people complained about the noise,  he built the first aerodynamics lab outside the city, with a bigger wind tunnel,  where he worked though the end of the first World War.

Busy guy.


(1)A new-fangled technique made popular in 1851 by the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations”, aka the Crystal Palace.

(2)111 feet six inches tall. Not including the pedestal, which brings the total height to 305 feet, and that pesky six inches. I was led to check this by one writer’s claim that when it was built the Statute of Liberty was the tallest statue ever made. My immediate instinct was to check the size of the ancient Colossus of Rhodes, which was famous for being well, colossal. The Colossus of Rhodes reportedly stood 110 feet, not counting its 50 foot pedestal.(3) The two statues were related by more than just size. The Colossus of Rhodes was also built as a symbol of liberty at the end of a long painful war between Rhodes and Egypt in 292 BCE. Bartholdi’s statue echoes the presumed pose of the Colossus. Since the Statue of Liberty was also known at the time as the “Modern Colossus”, I can’t help but feel that last eighteen inches was deliberate. But I digress.

(3) Though I’m not sure how we know this, since the statue was destroyed in an earthquake in 226 BCE.

(4) The Colossus of Rhodes was built with bronze plates over an iron frame. Just saying.

(5) 15 feet by 25 feet, since we’re measuring things today.

Yennenga the Svelte–the Mother of the Mossi

I’ll warn you up front, the story of Yennenga the Svelte is going to feel more like a fairy tale than a historical biography. We know her story only from the oral traditions of the Mossi people, which may have some non-historical additions and embellishments. But then again, they may tell the story exactly the way it happened. Here goes.

Once, upon a time, er—in the twelfth century Madega, the king of the Dagomba Kingdom, in which is now Ghana had a daughter named Yennenga who was a talented warrior and had the potential to be a great ruler. Her people described her as the lioness with the stubborn chin and flowing mane.

In time she began to think about marriage and starting a family. Her father valued her military skills so much that he found something something wrong with all of her suitors and turned them away. (You see what I mean about the fairy tale flavor?)

Yennenga tried to make her point with an analogy. She planted a field with okra and then allowed the pods to wither unpicked. When her father asked why she was letting the crop spoil, she asked him why he was letting her wither on the vine.

The analogy did not sway her father, who apparently wanted a warlord more than a grandchild.

Finally, Yennenga disguised herself as a man and rode away in the night on her stallion. She traveled for several weeks, until she had escaped her father’s domain. On day, she came upon a hut owned by a solitary elephant hunter named Riale.* Assuming she was a man, he invited her to stay with him.

Sometime after she accepted that invitation, her disguise failed. Or maybe she revealed herself as who she was. The two royal runaways became a couple and in time they had a son, whom they named Ouedraogo, or Stallion, in memory of the horse Yennenga rode on to escape her father’s house.

When Ouedraogo turned seventeen, Yennenga took him to meet her father. Her father welcomed them into his court. In fact, when Yennenga returned to Riale, Ouedraogo remained with his grandfather for a time.

When it was time for Ouedraogo to leave, his grandfather offered to make the young man his heir. Ouedraogo refused, saying he needed to carve out his own kingdom. Perhaps Madega had learned wisdom with time. Perhaps he was willing to let a young man to go his own way even though he wanted to keep his daughter by his side.** Instead of arguing with Ouedraogo, the king gave him a small army and sent out him to make his way in the world.

Ouedraogo stopped to pay his respects to his parents and then rode north, where he founded the first Mossi kingdom.

And while they may not have lived happily ever after, Yennenga’s descendants ruled the Mossi kingdoms until the French conquered them 1895.

*FYI: Riale was also a royal heir on the run. While accounts of why he had retreated to the forest differ, they agree that his father was the king of the Mandé in what is now Mali.

**Just a reminder: he didn’t want to let her get married because she was such a successful warrior. This may be history told with a fairy tale rhythm, but it’s a fairy tale about a girl with a javelin and a spear, not a glass slipper.

Tomyris: One Tough Mother

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day in the United States. It’s been packaged as a pastel holiday: all flowers and robins and lace and chocolate. In fact, for many people it’s a more complicated holiday than its commercial rendering would suggest. Many people greet the holiday with a sense of loss that is too new or too deep to allow celebration. Others are forced to face once again unresolved complicated relationships.  Me?  I’m one of the lucky ones. (*Waves* Hi, Mom!)

In celebration of Mother’s Day, with all its complications, ambiguities, and joy, I’d like to share the story of Tomyris, a woman warrior who proved that the strength of a mother’s rage when someone hurts her baby does not end when a child becomes an adult.


Rubens: The Head of Cyrus Brought to Queen Tomyris

According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Tomyris was the leader of the Massagetae, a confederation of hard-riding tribes who roamed the steppes of Scythia, the reported home of the legendary Amazons. Unlike women in many of the neighboring territories, Massagetae women fought on horseback alongside their men, held property in their own names, and enjoyed considerable sexual freedom. They also had a tradition of women rulers.

In 530 BCE, the Massagetae lands caught the eye of Cyrus the Great of Persia. Over the twenty years of his reign, Cyrus had built what was then the greatest land empire of all time. It stretched from the Caucasus to the Indian Ocean, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indus River. He had defeated the Medes, conquered the fabulously wealthy King Croesus of Lydia, subjugated the Greek colonies of Ionia, and seized the city of Babylon, bringing an end to the great Chaldean empire. His obvious next move was northeast to the steppes of the Massagetae homeland.

Seeing that Tomyris ruled alone, Cyrus first tried to win her territories with an offer of marriage, a time-honored means of annexing a kingdom, especially in cultures in which women are seen as the property of their fathers or husbands. Tomyris knew Cyrus was courting her solely for her kingdom. She refused his proposal like the poisoned apple it was and demanded Cyrus leave her people in peace, saying, “rule your own people and try to bear the sight of me ruling mine.”

In response, Cyrus marched his troops toward the border between his empire and the Massagetae lands. When he reached the Araxes River, he ordered his men to build bridges across it. It was obvious he did not have peace in mind.

Tomyris offered to meet him one-on-one if he would abandon his bridge-building and his invasion plans. The Massagetae would retreat a three-days’ march from the bridge and allow Cyrus to cross for a meeting. If he preferred, Cyrus’s troops could retreat and Tomyris would come to him. Cyrus took the suggestion to his war council, where it was shouted down on the grounds that it would be “an intolerable disgrace for Cyrus, son of Cambyses, to give ground before a woman.” The presumably greater shame of defeat at the hands of a woman apparently never occurred to them as a possibility.

With the failure of Tomyris’s attempt at diplomacy, the two countries went to war. At first Tomyris fought only to defend her borders against the Persian invasion. Then her son Spargapises and the men under his command fell into a Persian trap.

Cyrus’s trap depended on one fact: the Massagetae, like other Scythian tribes, drank milk rather than wine.* He ordered an elaborate banquet laid out in his tents, complete with large quantities of wine. Then he faked a retreat, leaving some of his less skilled soldiers behind to “defend” the camp. The seemingly abandoned feast caught Spargapises and his troops as effectively as peanut butter in a mousetrap. The Massagetae ate and drank themselves into a stupor. When they were too drunk to be dangerous, the Persians returned. They massacred most of the Massagetae forces, taking Spargapises prisoner.

Spargapises may have been clueless about wine, but he understood power politics. He tricked Cyrus into removing his bonds, then killed himself so the Persian emperor could not use him as a bargaining chip against his mother.

With Spargapises’s death, the nature of the war changed. Tomyris was no longer interested in simply keeping the Persians at bay; she wanted vengeance. Tomyris sent Cyrus a message in which she denounced the Persian ruler as a coward and threatened him with revenge for the death of her son: “Glutton for blood! Your weapon was red wine, which you Persians drink until you are so crazy that shameful words float on the liquor’s fumes. This was the poison you used to destroy my army and my son, not in fair and open fight. Leave my land now, or I swear by the Sun I will give you more blood than you can drink, for all your gluttony.”

Cyrus did not back down.

Tomyris led the remainder of her army against the Persians in a battle so bloody that Herodotus, unable to imagine the scale of future atrocities, judged it “more violent than any other fought between foreign nations.” The Massagetae did not bother to take prisoners. Instead they killed everyone in their path, from hapless camp followers to Cyrus himself. When the battle ended, Tomyris and her soldiers searched through the dead until they found Cyrus’s corpse. Tomyris hacked off his head and plunged it into a wineskin filled with blood–reportedly drained from Persian soldiers–and proclaimed that her decapitated enemy could drink his fill. Thereafter she used the empty skull as a goblet.**

Cyrus’s death at Tomyris’ hands did not mark the end of the Persian Empire–or even stop its expansion. His successors continued Cyrus’s expansionist policies. But they left Tomyris and the Massagetae alone.

*Not as innocent as it sounds. I’m told fermented mare’s milk (koumis) packs a punch.

**This was not a piece of personal gruesomeness on Tomyris’s part. Scythian warriors traditionally made bejeweled goblets from their enemies’ skulls. For that matter, the Romantic poet Byron is said to have kept a skull goblet around, though it was not made from the remains of someone with whom he had been personally acquainted.