General baron Edouard Empain, the Belgian who built the Paris metro
Edouard was born on 20 September 1852 in Belœil, Hainaut. He was the first of the seven children of a humble village teacher whose salary was barely enough to feed his family. Whilst still a child, Edouard dreamt of becoming an engineer, but his father could only afford to pay for his secondary education. The young man stubbornly refused to lose heart and found a job. At the same time as earning a living, he prepared for his engineer's examination before the Jury Central, a difficult task that he completed successfully.
These were the days of Leopold II, known as the "Builder King". Large building sites were sprouting up everywhere, which gave Empain the idea of buying and operating a quarry in Namur. This was an ingenious idea that allowed Empain to quickly make a fortune and buy as many as four quarries throughout Wallonia.
But Empain's quarries did not have efficient means of communication. His ingenious mind came up with the idea of creating local transport that would link the villages to the towns. Progress was being made ... He amassed the funds he needed to set up the "Société des Railways économiques de Liège-Seraing et Extensions". Electric engines were starting to take over from steam engines for urban transport. Empain was no sceptic, believing that this was a good idea that represented the future of transport. In 1891, he applied this idea to urban trams. In the space of ten years, he built the electric tramways of Boulogne, Lille, Cairo, Brussels, Ghent, Charleroi and the North Sea coast. He went even further in Paris, constructing a tram line that ran underground. This was the "Metropolitain", which made him a global celebrity thanks to the 1900 Expo. His work in this area also extended as a far as Russia, Spain and China. Encouraged by King Leopold II, who ennobled him, he also took an interest in Africa, founding the "Compagnie des Grands Lacs Africains" in 1904.
He constructed the tramways in Cairo, Egypt, and built a modern city from scratch there, the new Heliopolis, or "Sun City". Empain joined forces with a powerful local businessman with excellent social skills, the Armenian Boughos Nubar Pacha. Together they bought 2,500 hectares (5,952 feddans) of desert for a pittance (one Egyptian pound per feddan) and won a concession for an electric railway line. The Compagnie d'Héliopolis was authorised to create a garden city, which it would manage like a municipality. The urban development plan included broad avenues crossed by gardens, with some of these avenues up to 40 metres wide. The architecture was proportionate, with monumental buildings such as the Compagnie headquarters on Boulevard Abbas. Heliopolis was given an undefinable style that was part European, part Neo-Arab and included a mix of arches, balconies, domes and minarets. The residences fell into several categories and also conformed to very specific standards. Even the colour (light yellow) was included in the regulations. This eclecticism would ultimately result in a large degree of unity.
At the turn of the 20th century, Empain helped to make Belgium the second most powerful industrial nation in the world (per capita). He died on 22 July 1929 in the Belgian municipality of Woluwe-Saint-Pierre.