Gustave Eiffel’s new tower, to be built in Paris for the anniversary of French Independence in 1889, wasnt just something that could be put up at a whim. No-one had to that date ever built so high, and worse no-one had ever built lifts that could climb such heights. Originally Eiffel had held the notion stairs would be sufficient but eventually he was convinced, in part by the authorities, his La Tour Eiffel would not be complete without lifts.
Ultimately the Eiffel Tower holds the record for the world’s longest surviving lifts of that type to scale such heights. These were the Edoux lifts, nowadays a wholly forgotten part of the tower’s history. Much that has been written about the tower’s lifts has been those that traverse from the ground to the second floor, and those are celebrated lifts because they were the world’s first lifts that could change their direction of travel – and that was necessary because the supporting legs of the tower are curved.
In fact those lifts posed a huge headache and engineers of the time had to devise some very experimental lifts of a type not used before. Despite the rules for building the tower saying it should only be be built with French produced materials, the authorities had to renege and permit Eiffel to allow the American Elevator company, Otis, to install lifts that would do the job.
That wasn’t the end of the problem however. Building lifts that rose directly up to the top of the tower was another thing altogether. Again the limits of engineering at the time posed many obstacles. In fact it fell to an engineer by the name of Félix Léon Edoux to offer a solution that would be satisfactory.
Postcard from my 1973 visit depicting the three main lift systems. The Edoux lift is shown on the right.
Eiffel decided to tender out contracts for the lifts to companies who deemed they could overcome the technological challenges. USA’s Otis and France’s Roux-Combaluzier-Lepape took up the challenge for the first stage and installed lifts, two pillars to each company. Both overcame the problems where the first part of travel was at 54.5 before changing to 79, a difference of over 23 degrees (figures approximate) between the ground and second floors.
For the stage of travel from the second floor to the tower’s summit, Eiffel first considered a guy named M Backmann (of whom little is known) before enlisting the help of Félix Léon Edoux. Both Eiffel and Edoux had been friends since the Ecole Centrale Paris.
Edoux’s elevators in use at the World’s Fair 1867. Source: Pinterest.
Edoux was known for having built the tallest lifts in the world to date with a climb of approximately 230 feet (70m) at the Trocadero in Paris. Despite this height it was practically the maximum Edoux’s system could manage, yet Eiffel’s design required a climb of 525 feet (160m) roughly the entire height of Blackpool Tower!
It seems not even Edoux had the engineering expertise needed to achieve such heights, thus a compromise was made. Instead of a direct lift, Edoux’s would operate in two sections, each 262 feet (79m), and meet at a point halfway, roughly 668 feet (203m) above the ground. That’s nothing these days in terms of how high our buildings or even these high altitude glass bridges are, but when the lifts were first in operation during the last years of the 19th Century that was scary!
The Edoux system (image modified from Robert Vogel’s book)
The lifts were a hybrid hydraulic/cable operation. Basically the upper flight cabin was operated by hydraulics whilst the lower flight cabin was operated by cables linked to the upper cabin. Two of these cables tethered to the top of the upper cabin whilst two others extended past this cabin to be tethered to the top end of the hydraulic rams.
This picture of Gustave Eiffel at the summit of his tower belies the fact the photographer stands upon one of two gigantic cross beams, that which houses the Edoux cable return mechanism. The photographer would have been right over the pit which drops the cables down to the lower cabin. Picture from Wikipedia.
Eiffel’s plans showing the Edoux mechanism at the summit of the tower. The header tank is also shown. Source: Wikipedia.
The hydraulic rams extended the length of the lower section meaning when it was fully extended it reached the tower’s summit floor. Hence each cabin operated in unison.
An observer writing in the Irish Times 19 April 1889, said of the Edoux lifts: “There will be two cars… the first travelling from the second platform to the half-way point, the second from thence to the top. The movement of each car will produce in the other an inverse movement, so that while the first ascends the second descends. They meet on the half-way platform and exchange passengers, each car having two doors – one to enter by, the other to go out by.”
This image from Getty’s shows the rather fragile walkway that lay between the pair of lifts. Really it was just that even in the 1970s when I went up the tower! The staging area had been boxed in somewhat during later years to provide protection from the weather but one could still see the open space above and below.
Earlier I mentioned Backmann, who was a lift engineer from Paris. Eiffel declined the use of his elevator system, but conversely Edoux employed Backmann’s own unique helicoidal braking mechanism. Its a screw-operated system running up and down a threaded rail, which means the brakes are just off thus slightest increase in speed would spin the mechanisms and the brakes would activate.
What it means is the slightest drop would activate the system. In other words under normal speeds the brakes would just rotate, but if the speed got any faster, the brakes locked. If this occurred for any reason (eg cable failure) the elevator would immediately stop. As one might guess, the Backmann system was applicable only to the lower section elevator. This, along with the hydraulics meant the Edoux lifts were extremely safe to operate. No wonder they lasted such a long time.
Despite the tower opening on 31st March 1889, it was steps only to the top, all 1,710 of them! All the tower’s lifts had to be completed by 1 April 1889, and be available for a month’s testing. The Edoux lifts were no exception and had to take part in the rigorous testing regimes that followed in order that the tower’s lifts be running from the 6 May 1889. Clearly the testing period was extended well past that date as on the 29 May one of the Otis lifts was subject to a free-fall test to prove its the brakes worked as they should.
The pumps for the lift’s hydraulics was located in the tower’s south pier (pilier sud) and these pumped water up to the header tanks located within the top of the tower and necessary to work the huge hydraulic rams.
The Edoux lifts held 65 passengers each which was substantial and could average seven trips an hour, or 4,500/7,500 (shorter hours/longer hours) passengers a day. Their hydraulics consumed 31 gallons of water per second. These were described as the Eiifel Tower’s ‘piece de résistance.’ Yet these lifts became an anachronism. They worked well at the tower but unfortunately were ‘far too unwieldy to have a future.’
The lower Edoux cabin (pictured) was in the north section of the tower, whilst the upper was at the south.
The change-over point is seen as a boxed area in contemporary views of the tower, yet in reality, the actual location was a big hole through the middle of this boxed area and to all purposes suspended in mid-air 🙂 very little below and nothing above so to say. Pictures of the transfer point are few and far between, however here’s one from an old book on the Eiffel Tower in my collection.
The Edoux lifts at the interchange point soon after the tower’s inauguration May 1889.
It wasnt just the rise but the fact passengers had to change halfway in what was to all purposes and intents in mid-air. There were just railings no higher than one’s waist, protecting from the gloriously dizzying height that those with a nervous deposition had to walk upon!
The upper section Edoux lift in use. Source: Twitter.
Another problem with the Edoux lifts was the hydraulics froze in winter, which meant the top of the tower had to be closed too. Anti freeze would have been no good because far too much would have been need for normal operation. It seems anti freeze was used to prevent the system freezing overnight but that was not always successful. An article in the Irish Times for 8 January 1979 tells us plans for the tower to stay open all night throughout the new year of 1978/79 had to be curtailed when extreme temperatures froze the lifts.
By the mid 1970s complaints were regular about the tower’s lifts. Those within the lower stage were extremely noisy and gave a quite rough ride, whilst the Edoux lifts, smooth as they were, were just too slow for modern day needs. At least 25,000 visitors a day came to visit to the tower, which meant less than a fifth of that total could hope to reach the top.
A few months earlier a reporter wryly said ‘the Edoux system, going on ninety, is getting crotchety…’ They had been working for eighty-four years! I am sure the age of the Edoux lifts, along with the aforementioned new year’s debacle, prompted the tower’s authorities to consider replacement lifts. The Edoux were replaced by a bank of Otis elevators (the Duolifts.) Though far smaller they’re much faster and pretty well triple the capacity offered by the Edoux lifts. These Duolifts have already been replaced once and the system has been refurbished several times.
The Edoux pumping system on display at the Tower’s first floor (1st etage.) Source: Tour Eiffel de Paris
The Tower and Edoux in miniature.
RJ Models’ Eiffel Tower at the Design Museum
RJ Models built a 1:110 scale model of the Eiffel Tower for the Cartier exhibition at the Design Museum in Kensington during 2017. Its a fascinating model and the eye for detail has largely been maintained, the tower is just as it was in its first years!
The upper flight cabin correctly depicted by RJ Models.
Of course things cant be 100% at a scale like this, however I did notice that RJ models had got the Edoux lifts wrong. First, the Edoux lifts are shown as two independently operating lifts! Secondly, both cabins are exactly the same design, implying both are hydraulically driven. In reality the lower cabin is of a different design because it the one operated by cables.
The lower flight cabin is a copy of the upper one, which is wrong.
It was the model of the Eiffel Tower at the Design Museum that inspired me to do this article. Besides I’ve never seen any videos or photographs of the Edoux lifts, and so little has been written of them. I was fortunate to have rode the Edoux lifts on 1 October 1973 (I have been in the Duolifts several times), but even then I didnt take a picture of the scary narrow walkway between the two Edoux lifts. I dont suppose in general people thought much of the lift’s history or were just too nervous at the transfer point to even think about taking photographs 🙂
I took the following picture of the tower on 1 October 1973. This wasn’t my first visit to the tower however, our family having made that visit in 1960 (as far as the second stage only.) I no longer have photos of that particular occasion. What fascinated me as a kid in those days was the lift drivers. These were attendants who sat outside the lifts in all weathers operating the hydraulics needed to move the lifts up and down the tower.
Mannequin on the lower part of the lift which demonstrates how the operation worked until perhaps the late sixties when the lifts were converted to electrical operation. Source: CNET.
The 1973 picture is not of great quality, being taken with a Kodak Instamatic, but both Edoux lifts can be seen. The upper cabin is easy to spot, the lower is obscured by girders and cross trusses:
The Eiffel Tower with both Edoux lifts (the upper one can be seen more clearly) as viewed from Champs de Mars as seen in 1973.
Updated October 2022.