Aspects of Steampunk # 2: The Eiffel Tower

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Ah, the symbol of Paris, and even France itself! The Eiffel Tower is the most popular human-made monument in the world, with approximately seven million visitors every year (almost 250 million people have visited it since it first opened).

It also contains a rocket, a whole bunch of weapons, and the undead cyborg corpse of its creator, Gustave Eiffel. Wait, what??

This is the second article in the “Aspects of Steampunk” series, and here we look at the cultural legacy of the aforementioned tower.

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The Victorian Age was a revolutionary period in terms of technology, when engineering marvels were bringing about the greatest social revolution that the world had ever seen, and transforming human society into what was intended to be an industrial Utopia.

The Eiffel Tower was one of the symbols of the triumph of human endeavor. As such, it could also be a potent symbol for Steampunk – a genre occupied with engineering wonders, mad scientists, genius gadgeteers, gentleman and lady adventurers, historical domain characters, sky pirates in airships, spirited young ladies, action girls, bold explorers, corsets, top hats, goggles, and gorgeous period dress studded with rivets and gears.

But first, here are some vital statistics regarding the Iron Lady of Paris!

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The first level (which contains a post office) is 57m (187 ft) high, can be reached by lift or by 360 steps. From there it’s 700 steps (or lift) to the second level, which holds the wildly popular Jules Verne Restaurant. After that, it’s double-decker lift only to the third and top level, and the Viewing Gallery. This is 274 m above the ground and can hold 600 people at a time. On a clear day it’s possible to see for 72 km (45 miles), with a possibly a distant view of Chartres Cathedral.

The Tower is open every day and includes two restaurants. Summer hours are 9 a.m. to 12:45 a.m. It gets a fresh coat of paint every seven years, which requires 40-60 tons of paint, 1,500 brushes, and a team of 25 painters. 20,000 lightbulbs illuminate the structure every night, and 43 technicians are employed to change them. It sways two to three inches in the wind, and when the temperature drops, the height can contract by almost six inches. The complex and innovative pattern of pig-iron girders came from the need to stabilize the tower in high winds.

There are more than 40 replicas, imitations and homages around the world, including a half scale version in Las Vegas and the Tokyo Tower in Japan. For 41 years it was the tallest building in the world, but lost that title to the Chrysler Building in New York City in 1930.

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The Eiffel Tower was built in 1889 to celebrate the Paris Exposition (AKA the World’s Fair) of the same year, and also to mark the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. It is of course named its chief designer, the French civil engineer and architect Gustave Eiffel, who worked alongside Maurice Koechlin, Emile Nouguier and Stephen Sauvestre of the Compagnie des Etablissements Eiffel.

Eiffel was born Gustave Bonickhausen in the Cote-d’Or region of France, a child of German immigrants. The family adopted the name Eiffel as a reference to the Eifel mountains in the region from which they had come.

In 1885 he was awarded the honor of overseeing the design and construction of the Tower, and read a paper on the project to the Société des Ingénieurs Civils. He finished his talk by saying that the tower would symbolize “not only the art of the modern engineer, but also the century of Industry and Science in which we are living, and for which the way was prepared by the great scientific movement of the eighteenth century and by the Revolution of 1789, to which this monument will be built as an expression of France’s gratitude.”

There still exists an apartment of the top floor originally created for Gustave Eiffel as private quarters for entertaining, and now used as a museum holding lifelike wax figures of Eiffel, his daughter Claire and fellow technological luminary Thomas Edison. The decor remains largely the same since 1900, with floral wallpaper, oil paintings, upholstered seating and wooden furniture.

300 workers spent two years assembling the lattice tower with 18,000 pieces of puddle iron and 2.5 million rivets. A brick chimney built to assist the construction efforts is still hidden amidst the trees just near the West Pillar. Despite the scale of the operation, the Tower was not meant to be permanent! The original plan to dismantle it after 20 years, but city officials decided to keep it since it had become a valuable radiotelegraph station.

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During World War Two, while Paris was under Nazi occupation, the German troops hung a sign from the tower proclaiming their victory over France and established a military bunker below the South Pillar, which today is used as a mini museum open to small tour groups. Despite the Nazi domination, they could not dampen the Eiffel Tower’s potency as a symbol for the spirit of Free France. When Hitler visited Paris, members of the French Resistance cut the lift cables so that he would have to climb the steps if he wanted to reach the top. In Spring 1944, a P-51C Mustang flown by American pilot William Overstreet Jr. dramatically flying beneath the Eiffel Tower’s arches to follow and shoot down a German ME 109 aircraft, a sight which lifted the spirits of the entire city and fueled the tide of anti-Nazi resistance.

Toward the end of 1944, Hitler ordered General Dietrich Hugo Hermann von Choltitz, the military governor of Paris, to “level” the city and destroy the Eiffel Tower by blowing it up. Choltitz ignored the order, stayed and eventually surrendered his small force to the Free French Forces. He later asserted that his defiance of Hitler’s direct order stemmed from its obvious military futility, his belief that Hitler had by then become insane, and his affection for the French capital’s history and culture, There is a plaque on the Eiffel Tower relating the exploit of a group of Parisian firemen who managed to hoist the French flag on the Tower before Paris was finally liberated

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It also occupies a cherished place in popular culture; it has played the role of “symbol of Paris” in numerous films, books and comics. The destruction of the Eiffel Tower is also seen as a symbol of how bad things have got for the entire human race, for example in “Independence Day”.

Superman stopped it from being blown up by terrorists in Superman II: May Day (Grace Jones) escapes from 007 (Roger Moore) by taking a parachute jump off it in “A View to A Kill” (and the band Duran Duran get up to some spy-related shenanigans in the music video for the theme song). The Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana (Lalla Ward) stood on it and gazed lovingly over Paris in the classic Doctor Who serial “City of Death”.

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You would have thought the Eiffel Tower would appear in a great deal of Steampunk literature, wouldn’t you? Well … not so much. Not yet, anyway. Tangentially related is the historical novel “Murder on the Eifel Tower: A Victor Legris Mystery” by Claude Izner, and “The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec” (French: Les Aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec), a historical fantasy comic book series written and illustrated by Jacques Tardi.

But for something that resembles Steampunk … we would recommend “The Umbrella Academy,” published by Dark Horse Comics, a comic book and graphic novel series by Gerard Way (of the band My Chemical Romance, and drawn by Gabriel Bá. The first issue of Volume One is entitled “The Day The Eiffel Tower Went Berserk”, and reveals that the Eiffel Tower is really a weaponized spaceship piloted by the undead cyborg corpse of its inventor. Yes, you really have to read it for yourself.

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For the second Steampunk example, I hate to mention Disney here, but … the film version of “Tomorrowland”, directed by Brad Bird and starring George Clooney, is worth a look. Although the concept of the movie and original Disney attraction as a whole belongs to the sub-genre of Raygun Gothic (more of this in a separate post), “Tomorrowland” includes a fascinating concept right out of the Steampunk aesthetic. In the film’s mythos, the clandestine cabal of Gustave Eiffel, Jules Verne, Thomas Edison, and Nikola Tesla has left a secret at Monsieur Eiffel’s tower. The monument is none other than a gigantic Victorian-era launch gantry, and enclosed within it is a Steampunk-style, rivets-and-girder-work rocket ship. The rocket comes complete with an interior full of polished leather, dark wood and brass – and it’s in full working order. It blasts off, taking Clooney and his companions on a Vernesian orbit of the Moon before setting off to the titular “Tomorrowland”.

 

If this sounds awesome to you, the only problem is that there is too little screen time devoted to it. The good news is, however, the Disney hardcover book “Before Tomorrowland: The Secret History of the World of Tomorrowland” by Jeff Jensen, Brad Bird, Jonathan Case, and Damon Lindelof acts as a companion/prequel to the film. It is also on Kindle, but be aware that it is just a short graphic novel section of the longer print book. It is also only available on select devices (presumably, ones able to display color graphics).

COMING SOON: ASPECTS OF STEAMPUNK # 3 – JULES VERNE AND THE CITY OF NANTES!

 

About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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