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The Genius who Reinvented Himself
By David I. Harvie
The History PressCopyright © 2013 David I. Harvie
All rights reserved.
Gustave Eiffel's family name, now so intimately associated with everything French, was Germanic rather than French in origin. In the early eighteenth century his great-great-grandfather, Jean-René Boenickhausen, came from the village of Marmagen in Westphalia, 37 miles south of Cologne; he settled in Paris and for convenience adopted the surname Eiffel, after the name of his native region of Eifel. (Legally, the family remained Boenickhausen-Eiffel until 1880, when Gustave Eiffel took action in court in Dijon to annul the German prefix.) Jean-René made a good marriage in 1711 with Marie Lideriz, the daughter of his landlord, and became a forester; he died only eleven years later, at Saint-Valérie in Picardy, but his widow later remarried and eventually the children married into middle-class Parisian life, and the family prospered as master weavers and owners of a successful tapestry studio. Throughout his life, Gustave Eiffel collected many examples of fine eighteenth-century tapestries and took considerable pride in his family's mastery of the traditions of a vocation that became recognised as characteristic of the continuing French expertise in fine arts and crafts:
The tapestry weaver's profession was an elite trade; it has left us, in that delicate branch of the art of furnishing, delightful patterns which we admire and still copy today as one of the most precious products of French taste. The weavers of that period, one of the most brilliant in the 18th century, were true artists.
The family craft of tapestry-weaving came to an end with Gustave's father, Alexandre, who in 1811 at the age of sixteen rejected craftsmanship in favour of a military career in Napoleon Bonaparte's imperial army. This was a time when France consisted of 130 separate administrative regions, overseeing half of Europe. Alexandre saw service in Italy, and during the period when he taught at a military school at Saumur he wrote several books on military affairs. In November 1824, when he was stationed at Dijon, he married Catherine-Mélanie Moneuse, the daughter of a timber merchant. Catherine Eiffel was totally different in character from Alexandre. Throughout their marriage she remained business-orientated, and was largely responsible for the family's financial success and prosperity. Alexandre was a learned man who read Greek and Latin and had a spirited, ironic, humanistic outlook on life; in one account he was compared in character to Charles Dickens. He had already left the army and become a civil administrator in the préfecture, or local government department, by the time their first child and only son, Alexandre Gustave, was born on 15 December 1832; his two sisters, Marie and Laure, were born in 1834 and 1836 respectively.
Dijon, the ancient capital of Burgundy, situated at the confluence of the Rivers Suzon and Ouche, lies some 200 miles south-east of Paris. Long recognised as one of France's great wine-producing centres, Dijon is now often associated with the production of mustard, vinegar and chocolate. However, its history is closely associated with the duchy founded in 1015 by Robert, Duke of Burgundy, when court patronage attracted the best of French architects, musicians and artists. In the eighteenth century, the city was the centre of French intellectual life, but by the time Alexandre was born in the nineteenth century, the coming of the railways had opened up the area and it had become an important centre of the transport, mineral and related heavy industries.
Gustave's mother decided to increase her commercial commitments after the birth of her son. She had continued a charcoal business begun by her parents, but now took up the opportunity to become the principal distributor of coal from the mines at Epinac in Saône-et-Loire, and later those at Saint-Eloy near Commentry. Blast furnaces had recently been established in the surrounding area, and coal was much in demand in preference to the charcoal of earlier years. Le Canal de Bourgogne had been completed in the year of Gustave's birth, and related industrial expansion required considerable movements of massive quantities of coal. Linking the Atlantic with the Mediterranean via the Rivers Yonne and Saône, the 150-mile Burgundy Canal was a major factor in that industrial prosperity. Madame Eiffel appears to have had considerable business acumen, and although her commitment to these commercial activities meant that Gustave lived for much of his childhood with his blind grandmother in Dijon, his mother was very close to her son and had considerable influence over him until her death. Although she was a spirited and strong-willed woman whose authority in business affairs was widely recognised, she did not dominate her family; to both parents, their children were of paramount importance. Gustave later paid homage to his parents' fortitude and commitment:
Right at the canal port she set up large coal depots, which were regularly restocked by a succession of overland deliveries. A great bustle pervaded these depots, and my father soon had to give up his place in the Préfecture to join my mother, alongside whom his time was more usefully spent. My young imagination was deeply impressed by their strenuous labour to expedite the unloading of ships, and the loading of carts, whatever the weather, which obliged them to leave the little house they lived in, on the very bank of the canal, at daybreak and which did not stop until after nightfall.
By 1843 the family had become wealthy, but some poor investments led Catherine to decide to close the coal business, a profitable asset that sold for a substantial sum. Keeping some savings in the charcoal and steel industries, they made new investments in the brewery of Edouard Régneau and took up residence as tenants in a small eighteenth-century château, where they lived for the next twenty years. Despite the Eiffels' prosperity, they were regarded as somewhat inferior incomers by the patrician families who constituted the influential layer of Dijon society. Even their solid Parisian background did not protect them from the insular snobbery that was fundamental to the local social order. (Much later, Gustave was to attempt a marriage with the daughter of a Bordeaux family, but the union was condemned by the girl's parents, who were insulting about the standing in 'society' of the Eiffel family. Even the intervention of a Dijon attorney failed to substantiate the Eiffels' good middle-class reputation.) These humiliations bypassed Gustave the child, however, and he led a happy if quiet, provincial childhood, which he later recalled with affection as providing him with 'much sharper memories than of other times of my life'.
The part of his childhood that Gustave did not enjoy was school, which left him with 'the most wretched memories'. He was apparently an undistinguished pupil for most of these years, and complained of boredom and of having his time wasted in the smelly, cold schoolrooms of the Lycée Royal, where he was compelled to learn useless lessons by heart. He was rescued in his last two years at school by two teachers, M. Desjardin and M. Clémencet, who taught him history and literature respectively. They persuaded the young Eiffel to work hard enough to make up for a wasted year, and he was eventually successful in taking baccalauréats in science and humanities, enabling him to attend the Collège Sainte-Barbe in Paris as a preparation for going on to further study at the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique.
There were compensations for an imaginative child in his nearby surroundings: he discovered workshops, a contractor's depot, an eccentric scholar whom he was unable properly to characterise as either alchemist or sorcerer, and two grand houses inhabited by people who would not speak to him or any of his family. One of his great pleasures in these years was in forming a close relationship with his uncle, the rather fierce Jean-Baptiste Mollerat, who lived near his grandmother, and whom he later regarded as a second father. Mollerat, a determined anti-monarchist who continually assured the boy that 'All kings are rascals!' had suffered a deep disappointment as a young man. He had fallen for a young woman whose parents disapproved of him; nevertheless, they swore allegiance to each other, and Jean-Baptiste went to America to seek his fortune. When he returned, he discovered that the girl had married someone else. He drowned his sorrows in the study of chemistry, and it was only years later that he married a sister of Gustave's mother. Mollerat devised a process for the distillation of vinegar and wood spirits, and opened a large factory at Pouilly-sur-Saône, near Dijon. As well as the informal education he obtained from his uncle, Eiffel also benefited from a friendship with one of his uncle's friends, Michel Perret, a well-known chemist who owned mineral mines near Lyons. Perret engaged him in philosophical and theological discussion and encouraged Gustave to accompany him to his underground caverns, which produced copper minerals used in the manufacture of sulphuric acid. Perret had a virtual monopoly of this process in France, and happily encouraged the youth to learn as much as he wished, not only about industrial chemistry, but of 'extraordinary things such as mesmerism, which he practised on his servant, or philosophical themes such as theological arguments or the theories of Saint-Simon'. The liberal ideas and attitudes he learned from Mollerat and Perret were of lasting influence and importance, and were probably significant to Gustave's rejection of any kind of specifically religious ethos in his life; it was probably their influence that first gave the young Eiffel an insight into the practical value of mathematics.
In 1844, at the age of twelve, he visited Paris for the first time. He had been promised the trip by his father for some time, but in the end it was his mother alone who accompanied him. He was dazzled by the city, visiting the theatre and the opera, and travelling by train for the first time, to Versailles. Six years later, in October 1850, Alexandre finally accompanied his son to Paris, this time to enrol him for two years in the Collège Sainte-Barbe in the Latin Quarter. This time there was no overwhelming feeling of strangeness or alienation. On the contrary, he was impressed both by the vibrancy of the city and its resources and amenities, and a realisation that life in provincial Dijon was quite dull, at a time when revolution was in the Parisian air.
Two years earlier, King Louis-Philippe had been overthrown with the support of the masses (and escaped to England as 'Mr Smith'), a republic declared, and a self-appointed committee affirmed as the provisional government. In November there was an election for the state presidency which was won by Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte). In December 1851, with political discord continuing and a right-wing move under way to restore the monarchy, Napoleon mounted a bloody coup d'état, dissolved the constitution, and became dictator. The Second Empire of Napoleon III was declared in 1852 and continued for the next eighteen years.
Within days of starting at Sainte-Barbe, Eiffel was nevertheless bored and homesick. Later, things seem to have settled, and he wrote to his mother that he had discovered the pleasures of dancing – and English girls, whom he thought were fun and much less reserved than French girls. He also enjoyed the cultural offerings of the city and maintained the interest in mesmerism that had been stirred by Michel Perret by attending seances from time to time. His schoolwork seems to have been quite indifferent. He wrote to his mother after his examinations that he was satisfied that he had done well to come 43rd out of 106: 'You might not find this very good, but I think it isn't bad. There are at least 25 or 30 who are in their third year at Sainte-Barbe; you understand that they will inevitably do best.'
He tried to convince her that he would be happy to maintain that position throughout the year. That was not, however, the view of his teachers; in their opinion he had failed. He was less concerned about this than was his family, possibly because he was beginning to realise that his capabilities lay in practical rather than academic fields. The school was managed on very strict lines, which may well have been best for everyone, given that, during Gustave's time there, the coup d'état which brought Napoleon to power raged around the city and was witnessed by him and his fellow pupils:
From two till five o'clock we heard the sound of roaring cannon-fire; that was truly sinister. At a given signal everybody stopped and listened and in the general silence we could hear the distant muted sound of cannon-fire; it was frightening. M. Blanchet came to tell me that there were many killed yesterday. In our area, it didn't amount to much, as the district is disarmed; nevertheless all the streets are occupied by soldiers. All night we heard their infernal racket; they have hacked down all the wooden boards around the Pantheon and set huge fires in the middle of the street. Yesterday they were wild with drink, singing disgusting songs all night, to my deep sadness.
In his second year he felt sure that he had performed well enough in his examinations to obtain the necessary certificate allowing him to enter the Ecole Polytechnique, but there was apparently a dispute among the examiners over his performance, and he was made to face them in an additional interview. It appears that petty squabbles among the examiners prevailed, and he succeeded only in obtaining passes sufficient for the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures (the state school of civil engineering), regarded as more vocational than the influential Polytechnique that had been his original goal. Instead of joining the sons of the bourgeoisie in studying maths and science at the highest level, he decided – without any apparent family regret – to go to the equally admirable and rather more liberal Ecole Centrale.
This school had been established as a private institution in 1829 by Alphonse Lavallée, a businessman from Nantes, so that 'the doctors of factories and mills' could be better trained. Eiffel attended the school in its original location in rue de Thorigny in the Marais district of the city, and rented a room just off the Place des Vosges. The Hôtel Salé had been built in the mid-seventeenth century for a salt tax collector, and when the school moved to other premises to the south of Paris it became the Ecole des Métiers d'Art; the building in the Marais now houses the Musée Picasso.
In his youth, Eiffel developed a strong trait of character that was to have a profound influence throughout his life, and which would, in its turn, be of great comfort to him in his own old age: he realised the importance of his family relationships. He had a good rapport with his father, was especially close to his mother, and developed a warmhearted, protective attitude to his two sisters. Marie was his favourite, and he was careful to satisfy himself that when she was courted by Armand Hussonmorel, a successful flour miller, she was making a decision that would ensure her future comfort and happiness. When Marie married in 1852, he wrote to his mother, asking her to tell Marie not to forget him. Likewise, when, two years later, Laure married Joseph Collin, a foundry manager, Gustave displayed deeply affectionate concern.
The French have long idolised Eiffel as 'le magicien du fer' and it is perhaps a surprise that his field of study had no connection whatsoever with metallurgy or engineering. He is generally described at this period as being a rather prim, timid and conventional youth who nevertheless had a modest charm, which he retained until his death at the age of ninety-one. His years at the Ecole Centrale seem to have been unremarkable, his work generally diligent and his progress steady. The work was onerous, quite different from what he had been used to at Sainte-Barbe, with only two days' holiday in the year, and the discipline ferocious in effect and often petty in character. He had a particular weakness in technical drawing (a subject of some importance for someone who would become a construction engineer) achieving only 17 per cent on one occasion. He complained to his mother that, 'je crois que le professeur me donne de mauvaises notes par habitude.' ('I think the teacher gives me bad marks out of habit'.)
In his second year, he was required to select a subject in which to specialise from a list including metallurgy, mechanics, civil engineering and chemistry. It seems astonishing, in view of his later achievements, that Eiffel chose to concentrate on chemistry. This appears to have been a wholly pragmatic decision resulting from the fact that Jean-Baptiste Mollerat, with no children of his own, had nominated Gustave as his successor in taking charge of the successful vinegar and industrial spirit plant at Pouilly-sur-Saône. His uncle's political stance (he claimed the reputation of having been present at the guillotining of Robespierre) was at odds with the Bonapartist position of Gustave's father, who had spent much of his life in a series of military appointments. This difference opened up into a bitter family quarrel when a young man of republican views began to court Gustave's sister and Alexandre brought the affair to an end, provoking his uncle Jean-Baptiste to respond with hostility. The two branches of the family permanently divided and Gustave's opportunity to take over the running of the vinegar factory disappeared. When his uncle died the following year, the factory was acquired by a niece, and almost immediately began to fail:
The plant from the Pouilly factory was scattered and sold like old scrap. All the buildings were demolished and the site given over to cultivation. So the plough was driven over this factory where the industrial genius of one man had created a source of wealth for the surrounding area as well as for himself.
Excerpted from Eiffel by David I. Harvie. Copyright © 2013 David I. Harvie. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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