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General view of the Exposition
The Exposition Universelle of 1889 was a World's Fair held in Parismarker, Francemarker from May 6, to October 31, 1889.

It was held during the year of the 100th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, an event traditionally considered as the symbol for the beginning of the French Revolution. The fair included a reconstruction of the Bastille and its surrounding neighborhood, but with the interior courtyard covered with a blue ceiling decorated with fleur-de-lys and used as a ball room and gathering place.

The 1889 Exposition covered a total area of 0.96 km², including the Champ de Marsmarker, the Trocadéromarker, the quai d'Orsaymarker, a part of the Seinemarker and the Invalidesmarker esplanade. Transport around the Exposition was partly provided by a gauge railway by Decauville. It was claimed that the railway carried 6,342,446 visitors in just six months of operation. Some of the locomotives used on this line later saw service on the Chemins de Fer du Calvados.


The main symbol of the Fair was the Eiffel Towermarker, which was completed in 1889, and served as the entrance arch to the Fair. The tower was constructed of puddled iron, a form of purified wrought iron and was designed by Gustave Eiffel. The 1889 fair was built on the Champ de Marsmarker in Paris, which had been the site of the earlier Paris Universal Exhibition of 1867, and would be the site of the 1900 exposition as well.

The fair marked the first time that visitors were allowed to go onto the yet unfinished Eiffel Tower. Through not yet completed, exhibition attendees were allowed to walk up to the second floor platform. Works had work through the night the day before exhibition opened to complete the necessary construction needed to safely allow patrons to step foot upon the structure. When speaking on the dedicated workers, M. Salles, the son-in-law of M. Eiffel made the statement that "no soldier on the battle field deserved better mention than these humble toilers, who, will never go down in history." No one other than construction personnel were allowed higher than the second floor platform.

An equally significant building constructed for the fair was the Galerie des machines, designed by architect Ferdinand Dutert and engineer Victor Contamin. It was reused at the exposition of 1900 and then destroyed in 1910. At 111 meters, the Galerie (or "Machinery Hall") spanned the longest interior space in the world at the time, using a system of hinged arches (like a series of bridge spans placed not end-to-end but parallel) made of steel or iron. The choice of construction material is controversial; the building was designed to be built with steel but was actually constructed in iron.

Volume 10 of Studies in the History of Civil Engineering: Structural Iron and Steel 1850-1900 (published by Ashgate Publishing Limited and edited by Robert Thorne in 2000), includes an article by John W. Stamper, The Galerie des Machines of the 1889 Paris world’s fair. In it, Stamper claims that

The principal material of the building’s structure was to have been steel, but the decision was made at the last minute to use iron instead. There is considerable confusion about this on the part of architectural historians, most of whom assume it was built of steel since that is what is mentioned by contemporary journalists before the opening of the fair. William Watson, an American engineer who wrote a thorough report on the fair after it closed states that the idea of using steel was abandoned “on the two-fold ground of expense and the necessity of hastening the execution of work. “ The price of iron was about two-thirds that of steel in 1889….

There is an extensive and elaborate description of the Exposition's two famous buildings in the British journal Engineering (May 3, 1889 issue) with illustrations. A follow-up report appears in the June 14th issue of Engineering with this summation:

... the exhibition will be famous for four distinctive features. In the first place, for its buildings, especially the Eiffel tower and the Machinery Hall; in the second place, for its Colonial Exhibition, which for the first time brings vividly to the appreciation of the Frenchmen that they are masters of lands beyond the sea; thirdly, it will be remembered for its great collection of war material, the most absorbing subject now-a-days, unfortunately, to governments if not to individuals; and fourthly, it will be remembered, and with good cause by many, for the extraordinary manner in which South American countries are represented. (p. 677)

The June 28th issue of Engineering also mentions a remarkable "Great Model of the Earth" created by Theodore Villard and Charles Cotard. There were unseasonal thunderstorms in Paris during that summer of 1889, causing some distress to the canopies and decoration of the exposition, as reported by the Engineering issues at that time.

The Exhibition included a building by the Paris architect Pierre-Henri Picq. This was an elaborate iron and glass structure decorated with ceramic tiles in a Byzantine-Egyptian-Romanesque style. After the Exposition the building was shipped to Fort de Francemarker and reassembled there, the work being completed by 1893. Known as the Schoelcher Library, initially it contained the 10,000 books that Victor Schoelcher had donated to the island. Today it houses over 250,000 books and an ethnographic museum, and stands as a tribute to the man it is named after who led the movement to abolish slavery in Martiniquemarker.


Plan of the fair

A "Negro village" (village nègre) where 400 indigenous people were displayed constituted the major attraction.

Matching closely opening day of the Exposition, the Opéra Comiquemarker premiered on May 14, 1889, a work especially composed for that event: Jules Massenet's Esclarmonde (debuting American soprano Sybil Sanderson, attracting and entertain crowd of visitors for more that 50 evenings while the Exposition lasted.

At the Exposition, the French composer Claude Debussy first heard Javanesemarker gamelan music, performed by an ensemble from Java. David Toop, a modern musical critic, denotes Debussy's experience at the fair to mark the start of an ambient music, one which has since grown through a tree of successive musical innovators, including Sun Ra, John Cage, and innumerable others. Toop expounds upon Debussy's importance in his 1995 exegesis on ambient sound, Ocean of Sound. William Stroudley, locomotive superintendent of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway died whilst at the exhibition, where he was exhibiting one of his locomotives. Heineken received the Grand Prix ( ) at the exposition.

Buffalo Bill recruited American sharpshooter Annie Oakley to rejoin his 'Wild West Show', which performed for packed audiences throughout the Exposition. Other prominent visitors included the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) and his wife, Princess Alexandra; artists James McNeill Whistler, Edvard Munch, Rosa Bonheur, Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh; U.S. journalist and diplomat Whitelaw Reid; author Henry James; and inventor Thomas Edison.

A central attraction in the French section was the Imperial Diamond, at the time the largest brilliant in the world.


  • Expenses: 41,500,000 Francs
  • Receipts: 49,500,000 Francs
  • Visitors: 28,000,000
  • Exhibitors: over 61,722, of which 55% were French



Eiffel's Tower by Jill Jonnes (Viking 2009)

Engineering [Journal] 3 May, 1889 (vol XLVII), London: Office for Advertisements and Publication, 1866- (ISN 0013-7782)

Structural iron and steel, 1850-1900, edited by Robert Thorne; Aldershot, Hampshire, Great Britain; Burlington, Vt., USA: Ashgate/Variorum, c2000 (ISBN 0860787591)

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