Discontinuity from the Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower represented a 54 year discontinuity in the height of existing structures. It represented an 8,000 year discontinuity in the height of the tallest structure ever built.


Wikipedia provides several lists of tall buildings and structures1, which we take our data from, but have not investigated the accuracy of. Our combined dataset is here.

Our dataset of historic tall structures, collected from various Wikipedia lists.
Another illustrative figure of structure heights over time more recently, from Wikipedia.


Progress in building height was very slow in the four thousand years leading up to the Eiffel Tower. The Great Pyramid at Giza was the tallest structure from when it was built in around 2570BC until 1240AD. Even then, after two tall church spires nudged the record up by 13m by 1311, nothing taller was built again until 1884. The tallest existing buildings actually became shorter several times, as church spires collapsed. Between 1874 and 1884 the height of the tallest existing structures grew by about 2.2m/year, but these buildings were shorter than earlier structures. In 1884 the Washington Monument exceeded the tallest structure of 1311AD for the first time. The Eiffel Tower was the following record-beating construction, in 1889, and was 130m taller.

In terms of the trajectory of existing structures just prior to the Eiffel Tower, 130m is equivalent to 59 years of progress.2 The Eiffel Tower was built around five years after the last structure, so we have a 54 year discontinuity.

In terms of the trend of tallest structures ever, the discontinuity is much larger. The average rate over the whole of history was faster than the recent rate, and still makes the Eiffel Tower eight thousand years of progress.3

Explanations for the discontinuity

A brief investigation does not tell us what allowed the Eiffel Tower to suddenly be nearly twice as tall as any previous structure, after thousands of years of stagnation.

One non-technological explanation would be an unusual interest in building a very tall tower, leading to an unusual influx of resources for the project. This seems unlikely to be true, since the architect himself paid for a large fraction of the construction.4

Edemskaya 2014 claims that there was a ‘technological jump’ in France in the latter half of the 19th Century, from French engineers and mathematicians developing principles of iron construction.5 This could be true, however we could not easily verify it, and the source is not peer reviewed. 

A plausible explanation to us is that developments in iron construction during the industrial revolution made taller structures possible, and the building of tall towers is a sporadic industry—i.e. it is not the case that every year someone builds the tallest tower currently technologically feasible—so when there was interest in building a tall structure, it was possible to build a substantially taller one than previously. However this is speculative.


Beth Barnes and Katja Grace contributed research and writing.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_tallest_structures_built_before_the_20th_century
  2. 130m/2.2m per year
  3. 130m/((169m-8.5m)/(1884–8000))
  4. Wikipedia: After some debate about the exact location of the tower, a contract was signed on 8 January 1887. This was signed by Eiffel acting in his own capacity rather than as the representative of his company, and granted him 1.5 million francs toward the construction costs: less than a quarter of the estimated 6.5 million francs. Eiffel was to receive all income from the commercial exploitation of the tower during the exhibition and for the next 20 years. He later established a separate company to manage the tower, putting up half the necessary capital himself.
  5. ‘A further technological jump occurred in France in the second half of the 19th century. French engineers and mathematicians developed the principles of iron construction and explored theory and creation methods, disengaging from empiricism and paving a path for progress’ http://www.academia.edu/9135322/Rethinking_complexity_steel_lattice_structures_past_and_present