A Study in Contradictions

Materials Science and Engineering is an interesting field because at times it seems to contradict itself.  It combines science, a theoretical field, and engineering, which is all about application.  Materials range from aerogels, the lightest material ever made, to graphene, a single atom-thick sheet of which is 200 times stronger than steel.  The new materials we make allow mankind to travel to the deepest abysses in the oceans and to the furthest reaches of our atmosphere and beyond.  We design products to withstand incredible heat and blistering cold.  Humans have been utilizing metallurgical techniques for millennia, yet we are still making new discoveries every day.  One man who understood and embraced this contradiction was Gustave Eiffel.

Gustave Eiffel

If you’ve ever heard of a little town called Paris, you’ve probably heard of Eiffel and his tower there.  It was intended to be the centerpiece for the 1889 World’s Fair, and to remain assembled for just 20 years.  It would serve as a demonstration of France’s position on the forefront of engineering, of modern architecture, and of course on the cutting edge of culture.  Eiffel himself was a surprising combination: a gifted engineer and a visionary modern architect.

“Are we to believe that because one is an engineer, one is not preoccupied by beauty in one’s constructions, or that one does not seek to create elegance as well as solidity and durability? Is it not true that the very conditions which give strength also conform to the hidden rules of harmony?” –Gustave Eiffel

The Eiffel Tower

His vision for this tower was something unexpected, something entirely new in the realm of architecture, focusing on form rather than function.  To make this tower a truly monumental structure, Eiffel planned for it to be more than 1000 feet high.  Mathematicians of his era told him that after 780 feet, the tower would surely collapse.  With some materials savvy, though, Eiffel was able to avoid this fate, and create a structure that is still standing today.

The reason for this stability is the chosen material, puddled iron.  Eiffel wanted to utilize the new metallography techniques of his day to demonstrate the heightened strength of steel over stone, with less weight.  Puddled iron, which is no longer in use today, had a few amazing properties which come from its production.  All of its impurities are removed in a furnace, and then it is formed into balls.  These balls are then wrought into rods or other materials which are necessary for construction.  This unique process makes the surface of the puddled iron especially accepting of coatings, which has helped the tower to protect against its environment for more than 125 years.  It has been painted 18 times in its history, and is on a regular schedule to continue receiving this treatment to protect it from the elements.

A good view of the Eiffel Tower, formed from puddled iron

When the Eiffel Tower was first unveiled, almost all of Paris was in outrage, with critics describing it with such phrases as “this truly tragic street lamp” (Léon Bloy).  Over the years, though, it became a symbol of national pride, and the city truly embraced its landmark.  With the addition of a weather station on an upper landing and a radio transmitter at its top, the tower became functional as well as beautiful, and truly cemented itself as an integral part of the Paris landscape.


Au revoir,


One thought on “A Study in Contradictions

  1. Natalie, your blog was really interesting to read because I wasn’t aware that the Eiffel Tower was constructed out of such a revolutionary process. I found it particularly interesting how you mentioned its creator, Eiffel, wanted to focus not just on function but mainly on form. It is important as engineers not to lease sight on the fact that the world is a beautiful place and sometimes you need to take a step back fro purely analytical thought. As engineers, we can add to the beauty of the world in our own way that can revolutionize the world.

    -Kyle McKelvey

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