Your great-great-great-grandfather was awarded the Legion d'Honneur at the foot of the Eiffel Tower...
Everyone who participated in working on the Eiffel Tower and politicians climbed the tower on foot on the March 31, 1889, Eiffel carried a big flag with him.
There was a lighthouse on top of the tower - which has been replaced now by new equipment for the television services. Eiffel attached a 7m flag on top of the tower, everybody clapped, they walked down - and on the ground floor the President de Conseil, who was the head of the government at the time, Monsieur Pirat, was waiting for him there because he was not fit enough to walk all the way to the top of the Eiffel tower.
They made a speech thanking Eiffel for his work. He replied that he was very flattered and they announced that he was to be made an officer of the Legion d'Honneur. He was already chevalier but the officer was a rank higher.
Someone attached a rosette to his shirt and that was where it happened, they set up a lot of tables and had a big party, the workers were all offered lunch and that’s where they gave it to him. There was a cannon on top of the Eiffel tower which fired 21 times.
What it’s like having the name Eiffel?
We are very proud because he was a really great man who built wonderful constructions all over the world - there’s a lot to be proud of.
At the same time it doesn’t change who I am, it’s just a name so I'm not special not because I’m an Eiffel - but at the same time I feel honoured by his legacy and that’s why I spend time with the association to try to promote his legacy and to protect his work.
Sometimes there are bridges or constructions that are in danger of being destroyed and we try to sound the alarm and find ways to finance the protection of these monuments.
We did this not long ago for the first bridge Eiffel built in Bordeaux, it was going to be destroyed but after several years of hard work we managed to get it listed as a historical monument so it cannot be destroyed. Now we are working with the local government there to find a new use for that bridge. We are doing the same for other smaller bridges now as well.
Would you like there to be an Eiffel museum?
We would very much like to have a museum for Gustave Eiffel.
At the moment, there are only exhibitions. There is one at the town hall in Paris and one at the Musée d’Orsay, a lot of documents were given by my family to the Musée d’Orsay for this and also for researchers who are writing about Eiffel. But a museum would certainly be a nice thing to have.
Can you explain the scandal of the Panama Canal?
During the construction of the Eiffel tower he accepted an invitation to build the locks on the Panama canal.
The Panama canal didn’t work well because the way they wanted to make it was to have it at sea level which means that you have no locks and you just dig and dig and dig really deep to be at sea level.
It didn’t work and cost a lot of money and hundreds and thousands of people died trying to make it happen. Eiffel was against the idea and was part of an international congress in 1879 to decide the start of the construction of the canal.
He was one of the very few delegates who said this is a bad idea, it is not going to work, it has to be a canal with locks and Panama is a good location for that.
Nobody listened to him, they went ahead with it, it was a total failure, a lot of money was lost and a lot of people died. They came back to him several years later, in 1887, and they were in a deadlock, they needed someone to get them out of the situation.
They finally accepted the idea that they would have to build a canal with locks and Eiffel agreed to take part in the project finally and to build 30 huge locks for the canal.
The work went ahead, the locks were designed and built, they had a very interesting design that was completely different from the usual, they didn’t have doors, but sideways sliding locks made from one huge piece of metal.
As he was making those locks, whole company funding the project went bankrupt and it was too late to save the project.
A lot of people were very upset because a lot of small investors had put their life’s savings into the project and all the money was lost, it was a big scandal.
Eiffel had nothing to do with that: to start with he arrived very late to the project and because he was a contractor and got paid for his work and made some money out of it and then it went bankrupt a lot of anger was aimed at him for no real reason.
They were looking for scapegoats and he was attacked even though he had no real responsibility in what happened. There was a trial, he lost on one charge and then was cleared on another but it was a big shock for him because he was very old and very patriotic man who loved the idea of France.
The Eiffel tower was a sign of the power of France for him and so he was very, very upset that he got dragged in the mud so much by some very aggressive magazines and newspapers.
After that, it’s true that he took a step away from his business as an entrepreneur and began a new part of his career which is not very well known but is at least as important as what he did as an engineer, he started working as a scientist and became the father of aerodynamics.
He is one of the fathers of modern flying, it owes a lot to Gustave Eiffel. He is the one who created the wind tunnels that are used to test planes. The Wright brothers came to his place to test their planes, all the great plane makers came to see him. It’s true that he took a step away from the big projects and moved on to becoming a scientist for the rest of his life.