Film History Essentials: Panorama pendant l’Ascension de la Tour Eiffel (1898)

(English: Panorama during the Ascent of the Eiffel Tower)

What it’s about:

A camera operator films while ascending in the Eiffel Tower’s elevators, capturing a view of the Seine and the bridge leading across to the Palais du Trocadéro.

Why it’s essential:

The 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris brought together several pioneers of cinema and pre-cinema, and may have been the key event that changed the course of William Dickson’s development of the technology back in New Jersey. Meanwhile, no one in 1889 would have guessed at the lasting and iconic legacy of the Exposition’s centerpiece: the thousand-plus-foot, wrought-iron Eiffel Tower, which stood as the tallest structure in the world for over 40 years and became the globally-recognized symbol of the city of Paris. Although many Parisians initially opposed its construction, decried it as an eyesore, and petitioned for its demolition, the city and the nation ultimately embraced it as the monument to French achievement that it was always intended to be, and it has proved enduringly popular as an international attraction. It was originally set to be torn down after 20 years, but it has endured now for over 130.

While the tower itself, completed in only two years, was obviously an incredible feat of construction and engineering, some other, equally-impressive aspects of its creation are less well-known. One of the most significant challenges in preparing the “Tour de 300 Mètres” (as it was originally called) for the Exposition was the design and construction of an elevator system that would enable visiting crowds to ascend to the top. Passenger elevators were, after all, still a relatively recent innovation.

The first safety features that would prevent the car from plummeting down the shaft if a cable broke were developed in the early-1850s. This led to the gradual introduction of passenger elevators in a few buildings, though the first office building to include elevators wasn’t completed until 1870. Major innovations and developments were happening in elevator design throughout the rest of the century.

Installing elevators in the tower posed two challenges: First, because most buildings that included elevators were only a few stories tall, no one had ever designed an elevator system that could ascend such a height. Second, the shafts to reach the first two levels of the tower, before the four legs converged into a single structure, could not follow a vertical path. They would have to curve with the tower’s legs. Elevators for ascending the tower were divided between three different systems, and the Exposition commission began accepting bids for their design and installation.

The first system was the most straightforward. Lifts were to be installed in the east and west legs of the tower to take passengers only to the first platform, which Eiffel anticipated would handle the most traffic. The legs were large enough, and straight enough (though diagonal), that they could accommodate a track for the large cars that would ferry people up and down. This system, which could carry up to 100 passengers per car, was designed by the French company Roux, Combaluzier & Lepape (see right). The system was functional, but the result was apparently not ideal:

The machinery […] was novel in every respect, but it was a product of misguided ingenuity and set no precedent. The system, never duplicated, was conceived, born, lived a brief and not overly creditable life, and died, entirely within the Tower.
The system’s shortcomings could hardly be more evident. Friction resulting from the more than 320 joints in the flexible pistons, each carrying two rollers, plus that from the pitch chains must have been immense. The noise created by such multiplicity of parts can only be imagined.

Elevator Systems of the Eiffel Tower, 1889, Robert M. Vogel, pp. 28, 30

Likewise the third system, though more daunting, was relatively straightforward: elevators that could carry people up the 525 feet of the tower’s final, vertical rise. This system was supplied by Léon Edoux, who had by that point over 20 years of experience in designing elevators. He divided the distance in half, with one elevator servicing each ~262-foot section, and passengers changing cars at an intermediate platform in the middle (see left).

The second system was by far the most difficult. It would be installed in the north and south legs of the tower, and carry passengers all the way to the second level, passing along the entire curve of the leg until reaching the vertical section. No French company would put forward a bid to attempt the project, even after the deadline was extended. As a result, the committee was finally forced to accept a proposal by the Otis Elevator Company, of Yonkers, New York, even though the charter required that the tower project be 100% domestic.

The story of the Otis company’s development of these special hydraulic elevators is dramatic, but highly technical. Suffice to say that this project alone took as long to complete as the construction of the entire tower itself, but the results were notable:

The installation must have had immense promotional value for Otis Brothers, particularly in its contrast to the somewhat anomalous French system. This contrast evidently was visible to the technically unsophisticated as well as to visiting engineers. Several newspapers reported that the Otis elevators were one of the best American exhibits at the fair.

Vogel, p. 28
Cutaway view of the Otis car

The Otis elevator carried 40-50 passengers, all seated, from the ground to the second platform in a little over a minute. It accomplished its task well and safely (the #1 requirement and concern of the Exposition committee), and it traveled twice as fast as the French system, with significantly less noise. The French elevators on the east and west legs were eventually replaced by a superior French system (extending all the way to the second level) for the 1900 Exposition Universelle, and the Otis elevator in the tower’s south leg was also replaced with a large staircase leading to the first platform. The remaining Otis elevator was finally replaced in 1912, with a much smaller electric elevator that had the advantage of being able to continue running when freezing winter temperatures shut down the hydraulic lifts.

One of the Otis cars “parked” at the second platform

The impressive edifice that is distantly visible in Panorama pendant l’Ascension de la Tour Eiffel is the Palais du Trocadéro, originally built for the 1878 Exposition Universelle. It incorporates elements inspired by Muslim and Byzantine architecture (note especially the minarets that flank the main structure). This building stood for nearly 60 years before it was partially demolished and replaced with the Palais de Chaillot for yet another Exposition Universelle in 1937. This Lumière film thus preserves a view that no longer exists, taken from inside an elevator that has long-since been replaced.

Why you should see it:

View of the lower Edoux elevator car

The first 15 seconds of Panorama pendant l’Ascension de la Tour Eiffel appears to have been filmed from the Otis elevator in the tower’s north leg, between the first and second platforms. This section of the ascent, ending 377 feet above the ground, would have lasted about 30 seconds in all. There is a cut at this point in the film, and it resumes from the lower Edoux car just as the top of the second platform descends out of view below the bottom of the frame. The footage continues for another 30 seconds of the ascent, concluding before the cameraman would have changed cars at a height of about 640 feet to continue the rest of the way to the top.

Horizontal motion was by now reasonably common for a traveling shot, but this film adds another axis to the possible directions a camera could move. The dark silhouette of the complex latticework is sharply defined in the foreground of the shot, forming a stark contrast to the softer, more rounded architecture half a mile away. The traffic moving about below on foot, by carriage, and even on a passing boat, are barely visible, completely dwarfed by the immensity and magnificence of the structures and the landscaping around them.


~ by Jared on April 9, 2023.

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