The French needed a boost as the 19th century drew to a close, recalls Nate LeBoutillier in his children's book, Eiffel Tower: Modern Wonders of the World. Germany had in 1870 humiliated France in the Franco-Prussian War. Yet France had always envisioned a great role for itself, and it was soon time to think of a new way to impress the world.
"There had been," writes LeBoutillier, "talk in the years prior of building a great tower.
"England had considered a tall tower for London, and the United States was thinking the same for Philadelphia."
The French minister of commerce and industry declared a contest for architects and engineers to design a 1,000-foot (305-meter) tower.
Given the state of the country at the time, it will come as no surprise that many of the proposals focused on subsistence or on palpable ways to make a positive difference. One, recalls LeBoutillier, envisioned a tower "built like an enormous watering can that would water Paris in the event of a drought.
"Another called for a tower with mirrors at the top reflecting light so bright that Paris would never be dark."
Gustav Eiffel submitted the winning plan – which won because his blueprint was one of the simplest and cheapest.
The 300-meter cast- and wrought-iron tower was constructed with breathtaking speed. It was completed in just twenty-seven months, and was unveiled on May 6th, 1889.
At the outset, few were impressed. Lucien Herve and Barry Bergdoll write that "a chorus of opposing voices rose in protest, attacking it as a meaningless gesture, devoid of function and too reminiscent of an industrial smokestack" (The Eiffel Tower). Even a visit in which a clearly impressed Thomas Edison signed the tower's guestbook did not quell the rumblings.
In the end, Herve and Bergdoll surmise, the tower was saved by the First World War, when Eiffel persuaded the city of Paris of its usefulness as a radio and telegraphic post, thus putting weight behind his assertion that his design represented the crucible of modernism.
"I maintain that the curves of the four arrises of the monument, as the calculations have determined them, will vie an impression of beauty because they will demonstrate to the viewer the boldness of the conception," Eiffel claimed.
Today, it is hard to disagree. Ça, c'est Paris!