Eiffel and the Telling of Technological Stories

By Patrick De Oliveira

Roland Barthes described the Eiffel Tower as “a universal symbol of Paris.”[1] Built to celebrate both the French Revolution’s centennial and the nineteenth century’s sweeping industrial transformations, the Tower can also be interpreted as a material instantiation of Eric Hobsbawm’s influential “dual revolution” thesis, which posited that the modern era was defined by the economic changes prompted by the British industrial revolution and the political changes unleashed by the French Revolution.[2] Upon completion in 1889, it stood 1,063 feet high, almost twice the size of the Washington Monument (previously the world’s tallest structure). While it’s no longer the tallest, the Tower remains one of the world’s most iconic monuments, and the release of a major French production about its construction offers an opportunity to investigate the implications of how we tell technological stories—especially what gets left out when we romanticize technological icons like the Eiffel Tower.

Georges Garen, Embrasement de la Tour Eiffel pendant l’Exposition universelle de 1889, 1889. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

We all love the “Iron Lady,” but what if the Tower itself was the product of hopeless love? Martin Bourboulon’s Eiffel is built on this fanciful premise, conveyed in all its magnificent ham-fistedness in the final scene. Following the triumphant inauguration of his Tower, a restless Gustave Eiffel (Romain Duris) sits in his private apartment at its top (this was indeed an idiosyncratic touch added to the structure). The camera zooms in as he sketches over some structural designs to reveal a secret. He has traced a stylized “A” over the Tower, followed by “drienne.” Played by Emma Mackey, Adrienne Bourgès is Eiffel’s amour perdu. The engineer meets her early in his career in Bordeaux, where he was working on his first railway bridge. She comes from a wealthy family, and while her parents initially entertain her romance with the scrappy Eiffel, they put a dramatic end to it as soon as plans for marriage come up. Decades later, Eiffel is a widower and Adrienne is married to Antoine Restac (Pierre Deladonchamps), a journalist who champions Eiffel’s work. The engineer comes across his long-lost love at a dinner party with French dignitaries seeking to convince him to build a monument for the 1889 Exposition Universelle. Eiffel is resistant, for he wants to work on Paris’s metro system (“That’s modernity!” he exclaims). But after Adrienne shows interest, Eiffel commits himself to building the tallest structure the world had ever seen. “A tower. 300 meters,” he proposes.

The rest of the movie focuses on Eiffel struggling to keep hold of these two passions. As his affair with Adrienne develops, construction of the Tower falters, in large part because Antoine is aware of the affair and wields influence over Parisian political and financial elites. A choice needs to be made: La damme de fer or la damme marriée? However, there’s no evidence that the affair ever existed. The answer to why the Tower is shaped like an “A” does not rest in some failed romance, but in the vast experience Eiffel acquired throughout his career in designing open-lattice metal bridges to cope with wind resistance (fold the Garabit Viaduct in half and you’ll see). But the concocted romance does more than give short shrift to Eiffel’s engineering prowess, it also elides the rich socio-political history behind the Tower’s construction.

Read more: Eiffel and the Telling of Technological Stories

Postcard depicting the Garabit Viaduct, a railway arch bridge engineered by Eiffel in southern France in the early 1880s. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Using fictionalized romance to frame historical period dramas is nothing new, but the narrow framing adopted by Eiffel is unfortunate because of the missed opportunity to engage in more depth with the tensions that shaped the Eiffel Tower’s construction—an episode where labor, industry, and democratic politics all came together and provided much more drama than a half-baked love story could ever supply. For instance, while there are brief references to the opposition that artists mounted against the Tower, the movie doesn’t explore the nuances of that conflict, which concerned the question of how art and engineering would fit into modern industrial society. As Hollis Clayson observes, criticisms that the Eiffel Tower was as ugly as a “gigantic and black factory chimney” reflected anxieties about the expansion of industry in the Parisian suburbs.[3]

France’s path toward industrialization was slower than Britain’s (often taken as the ideal model), with smaller artisanal production remaining the norm for much of the nineteenth century.[4] But the growing mechanization of industry in the late nineteenth century posed a threat to the social order that sustained republican ideals. Critics of “machinisme” argued that, rather than a nation of small manufacturers who took pride in their work and stood on relatively equal footing, the rapid pace of industrialization risked creating rifts in French society where a few captains of industry reaped the fruits of the labor of a working class alienated by the ever-growing division of labor. 

While artists sneered at the Eiffel Tower, republican leaders envisioned it as a material synthesis of the antagonistic forces of modernity. As Miriam Levin explains:

The multitude of small parts, each clearly articulated and composed of the same material, each reduced to its most efficient form and interlocked with the others to form an integrated, controlled, dynamic system, could be construed as a paradigm of a liberal democratic society. The thrust and counterthrust of the individual parts, by resolving their tensions within the fluid upward movement of the structure’s form were taken as the sacred embodiment of the progress toward a new union which rational production in the hands of liberated individuals would make possible.[5]

Levin makes a compelling case for how symbolically the Tower signaled a harmonic relationship between industrial capitalism and liberal democracy. But at the construction site things proved to be much more complicated. 1880s France was a new world of organized labor—a world where the state supposedly recognized unions and workers’ right to protest (it didn’t always live up to that promise, as the 1891 massacre in Fourmies made clear).[6] Meanwhile, the Tower’s construction, which began in July 1887, had to be completed in just twenty-two months to be ready for the Exposition Universelle opening in May 1889. This was an extremely short deadline for a project of this complexity.

The combination of new forms of organized labor and a short deadline rendered the Eiffel Tower construction rife with tensions. To make sure it was completed in time, both Eiffel and the workers made concessions during the negotiations for wages and work schedules—communal aspiration seemingly triumphing over class interests. Eiffel’s workers received higher salaries than those at other construction sites, but they also worked in more dangerous conditions under oppressive heat during the summer and freezing winds during the winter. The compromise didn’t hold, and on 19 September 1888, workers went on strike.[7]

The strike is briefly depicted in the movie, but it’s a plot device in service of the love story between Gustave and Adrienne (in fact, there are barely two lines of dialogue from the workers in the entire movie). Tribulations in the affair lead Eiffel to invest himself wholeheartedly in finishing the Tower, and this is when we see him climb one of its legs to give a speech asking the workers to come back to finish “their” monument. It makes for a nice shot but becomes unremarkable when we consider how things played out much more dramatically (one also wonders if the 57-year-old Eiffel would have been able to sprightly scale the Tower like Duris does).

Workers in the Eiffel Tower construction site. Source: gallica.bnf.fr.

In reality, Eiffel was incensed with the strike and placed signs threatening to fire anyone who did not immediately return to work. But the workers had leverage. They were skilled hands who had been working at this construction for over a year, and they knew Eiffel couldn’t afford to lose time if he was going to make the Exposition Universelle deadline. Not wanting to put his project and reputation at risk, Eiffel offered the workers a raise and supplied material like waterproof garments and hot wine to improve conditions in the forthcoming winter months.[8]

Then, as the Tower kept creeping up, workers started demanding more raises to recognize the dangers posed by the unprecedented heights at which they had to conduct their work. Again, Eiffel held back, and on December 20 it seemed that another strike was eminent. This time, Eiffel came up with a shrewder plan. He promised a 100-franc bonus to everyone who stayed on until the Tower was completed, fired those who didn’t show up, and “demoted” those who had complained about working at higher altitudes to the task of installing the decorative lacework on the first platform. The strategy prompted most workers to become more invested in the project and emasculated dissenting voices (since the lacework was seen as less important work).[9]

The story of the Eiffel Tower’s construction is significant because it demonstrates what goes into the production of the technological sublime. According to David Nye, this is the kind of religious feeling we experience when faced with impressive technological artifacts like the Hoover Dam or the Brooklyn Bridge—an experience that has political implications because “in moments of sublimity, human beings temporarily disregard divisions among elements of the community.”[10] But the technological sublime is a spectator experience that cannot solve social divisions that are shaped by labor relations. The workers who went on strike recognized these divisions. While experiencing the sublime might give us the illusion of temporary unity, the inequalities remain. When the Tower was completed, two separate celebrations where held: a simple party for the workers and an extravagant banquet for dignitaries.

A story focused on exploring the social tensions that shaped this iconic monument is all the more important given how the technological sublime persists as an ideological force, even if its center of gravity has shifted to new regions. Today we stand in awe of techno-futuristic landscapes like Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands and Dubai’s Burj Khalifa—structures that symbolize those country’s technological modernity in the twenty-first century just as the Eiffel Tower symbolized France’s in the nineteenth century. But the awe we experience when standing before these impressive structures can also obscure the fact that technology alone did not build them. Behind the shiny glass, sleek concrete curves, and vertigo-inducing heights that signal the techno-utopia of today’s metropolitan hub are migrant workers being shuttled on the back of unsafe lorries and living in crowded dorms that are more reminiscent of dystopia (a situation that worsened with COVID-19).

Singapore’s iconic Marina Bay Sands at night. Photo by author.

The inequalities behind today’s technological sublimes are even more exorbitant than those in fin-de-siècle Paris. This is not accidental. The Republic that the Eiffel Tower symbolized belonged, even if only in principle, to both Eiffel and his workers—workers who could engage politically and mobilize the language of citizenship to secure more rights. But migrant workers today are deliberately kept from partaking in their “host country’s” political culture. The Eiffel Tower’s synthesis of antagonizing forces may have been a fiction, but it was a useful one that the workers could appropriate for their own interests. No such thing exists for today’s migrant workers, a community of labor kept in a precarious condition through a neoliberal compromise where employers hold most of the power in contractual relations while the state plays a distant moderating role. Hence the poignant questions asked by Md Sharif Uddin, a Bangladeshi poet and migrant construction worker: “Why are we still ashamed of reminding the company of our rights? Why do laws speak hesitantly about us labourers? Why do workers still suffer despite the massive progress of civilisation? Where is the so-called humanity? Civilisation is growing by the toil of those who are deprived.”[11]

Perhaps it’s too much to expect a popular production to explore in depth the relationship between worker rights and political rights. But the Eiffel Tower is a revolutionary monument precisely because its design embodied the promises of technology as a progressive force, while its construction reflected the limitations of that vision. One can only hope a future fictionalization will explore these themes.

Patrick Luiz Sullivan De Oliveira is an Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, and Society (Education) at Singapore Management University and a Research Associate at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He is currently working on a book exploring the ballooning revival in late nineteenth-century France, which is under advanced contract with The MIT Press. His most recent article, “Transforming a Brazilian Aeronaut into a French Hero: Celebrity, Spectacle, and Technological Cosmopolitanism”, appeared in Past & Present in February 2022.  You can find him on Twitter at @MustHistoricize.

Title image: 4 stages of the Eiffel Tower’s construction.

Further readings:

Levin, Miriam R. When the Eiffel Tower Was New: French Visions of Progress at the Centennial of the Revolution. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.

Loyrette, Henri. “The Eiffel Tower.” In Realms of Memory, Vol. 3: Symbols, 349-374. Edited by Pierre Nora and Laurence D. Kritzman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Thompson, William. “‘The Symbol of Paris’: Writing the Eiffel Tower.” The French Review 73, no. 6 (2000): 1130-1140. 

Williams, Rosalind H. Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth-Century France. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.


[1] Roland Barthes, The Eiffel Tower, and Other Mythologies, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 3.

[2] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 (New York: Vintage Books, 1996).

[3] Hollis Clayson, “The Ornamented Eiffel Tower: Awareness and Denial,” nonsite.org 17 (2019), https://nonsite.org/the-ornamented-eiffel-tower/.

[4] Patrick O’Brien and Caglar Keyder, Economic Growth in Britain and France, 1780-1914: Two Paths to the Twentieth Century (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1978); Jeff Horn, The Path Not Taken: French Industrialization in the Age of Revolution (1750-1830) (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006).

[5] Miriam R. Levin, “The Eiffel Tower Revisited,” The French Review 62, no. 6 (1989): 1058.

[6] On 1 May 1891, French troops opened fire on a peaceful demonstration of textile workers in Fourmies, leaving nine dead (including a child) and many more injured. In France, the right to strike was enshrined in law in 1864, and trade unions were legalized 1884. For more on the tumultuous years of the early French labor movement see Michelle Perrot, Les ouvriers en grève, France 1871-1890, 2 vols. (Paris: Mouton, 1974).

[7] For a narrative account of the Tower’s construction see Jill Jonnes, Eiffel’s Tower: The Thrilling Story Behind Paris’s Beloved Monument and the Extraordinary World’s Fair that Introduced It (New York: Viking, 2009).

[8] Ibid., 48-49.

[9] Ibid., 50-51.

[10] David E. Nye, American Technological Sublime (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1994), xiii.

[11] MD Sharif Uddin, “The Tears of Workers,” in Stranger to Myself: Diary of a Bangladeshi in Singapore, ed. Theophilus Kwek (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2017), 48.

2 thoughts on “Eiffel and the Telling of Technological Stories

  1. Patrick, Another really good writing and as always you left this reader with “food for thought”. Congratulations!


  2. Dear Patrick, thanks for introducing me to the Bourboulon film. Also, for the fuller treatment of labor issues in the construction of the ET. I had pursued that theme somewhat in an article in French Review that followed up on what I wrote in WTETWN. (“The Eiffel Tower Revisited”) that considered opposing meanings of the tower as a symbol of labor and the government’s and Eiffel’s failure to honor the workers as they had promised. I hope you might be pursuing these issues in dealing with migrant workers at 21st century fairs and sports events such as Dubai and the world cup.


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