Imagine a building in London almost twice the height of the Shard. Imagine it had towered over the capital for more than a century. Instead of lifts, a steam train spirals round the outside. Somewhere in a parallel universe, such a wonder now stands in place of Wembley Stadium.
Towards the close of the 19th century, rail magnate Sir Edward Watkin was intent on all manner of ambitious schemes, including a tunnel under the Channel (it'll never work). He also dreamt of a gigantic tower, to rival the wonder of Paris and draw tourists to his rail network. Gustave Eiffel was himself unsuccessfully approached to design the behemoth, before the commission was eventually opened out to competition. Some of the entries are presented above.
The winning design, by Stewart, MacLaren and Dunn, was a slender version of the Eiffel Tower, but with eight legs and a height of 366 metres (beating Paris by 42m). It was indeed partly constructed, and photographs exist. But lack of funding stalled the project. The abandoned structure was eventually demolished in 1907, and later replaced as local focus by Wembley Stadium. The deleted tower is now usually known as 'Watkin's Folly', and we featured it in a recent Time Travel London article.
Thanks to the wonderful Public Domain Review, it's possible to pore over the various alternative proposals, and dream about what might have been at Wembley. Many are rip-offs of the Eiffel Tower, but others are truly novel. In nearly every case, the design would have resulted in by far the tallest structure in the world. One or two would still make it into the top 5.
Flick through the gallery above to see some of the more outre suggestions, or check through the Public Domain Review scans to see all 68 of them, with accompanying notes. The campaign starts here for a steam-powered funicular up the side of the Shard.
Unbuilt London: Tall Towers and Strange Skyscrapers